Growing Bleeding Heart Plants (Dicentra) in the Garden

Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis
Marie Iannotti

Overview and Description of Bleeding Heart Plants

It’s easy to see where the old-fashioned Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) got its name. The pillow-like flower is heart shaped with a single dangling pendulous drop.

Bleeding Hearts are shade loving woodland plants that bloom in the cool of spring. Although they stay in bloom for several weeks, the plants often become ephemeral, disappearing for the rest of the summer, if planted in too much sun or heat.

The name Bleeding Heart is most associated with Dicentra spectabilis because the flowers truly have the appearance of a bleeding heart. However many species of Dicentra get grouped in as Bleeding Hearts, so it can be difficult to be sure what you are buying. Fortunately, they are all attractive, clump forming perennials. Bleeding Heart was suggested by a reader for our list of great perennials for novice gardeners. CAUTION: Some people find Bleeding Heart to be a skin irritant.

  • Flowers: Racemes of pink and/or white flowers.
  • Foliage: Heavily lobed to lacy and fern-like.

Botanical Name

Dicentra spectabilis

Common Names

Bleeding Heart

Hardiness Zones

Dicentra spectabilis, along with most other varieties of Bleeding Heart are perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones: 2 - 9

Sun Exposure

Bleeding Heart does best in partial shade. Since it is such and early bloomer, planting near a deciduous tree is a good spot. The plants will be up and growing before the tree leafs out and when Bleeding Heart needs protection from the summer sun, the tree will provide it.

Mature Size of Bleeding Heart Plants

Height: 24-36 inches (60-90 cm)
Width: 18-30 inches (45-76 cm)

Bloom Period / Days to Harvest

Expect to see flowers in late spring to early summer, depending on the weather.

Dicentra spectabilis can be ephemeral and disappear when the weather warms, however the roots are still alive and it will regrow in fall or the following spring.

The Fringed-leaf varieties will repeat bloom throughout the summer.

Using Bleeding Heart in Garden Design

Bleeding Heart usually blooms about the same time as Pulmonaria, Brunnera and Hellebores, all of which make a wonderful woodland cottage affect.

Bleeding Heart will stay in bloom for several weeks, but the foliage tends to go downhill after flowering. Plan to have late emerging plants nearby, to fill in the hole if your Bleeding Heart goes dormant and disappears. Coral Bells, Ferns, Foam Flower, Hosta and Monkshood are good companions.

Suggested Varieties

  • Dicentra spectabilis ' Alba'- Pure white flowers.
  • Dicentra spectabilis 'Gold Heart'- Pink flowers and yellow-gold foliage. A little flashier, but the gold punches up a shady garden.

Related Species

  • Dicentra eximia Fringed-Leaf Bleeding Heart - Northeasat American Native with delicate ferny foliage. Will repeat bloom through out summer.
  • Dicentra formosa Western Fringed-Leaf Bleeding Heart - Pacific Northwest Native. Showier flowers than D. eximia and more drought tolerant.
  • Dicentra cucullaria Dutchman's Breeches - Very similar to Bleeding Heart. The flowers look like little white pantaloons.

Growing Tips for Bleeding Hearts

Soil: Bleeding Hearts prefer a rich, moist soil, with lots of organic matter, but are not particular about soil pH.

Propagating: Bleeding Hearts can be started from seed, division, cutting, or seedling.

  • Divisions: It is very easy to divide Bleeding Heart plants. Dicentra spectabilis should be divided after flowering, so you don’t sacrifice bloom. The fringed-leaf varieties divide nicely early in spring, as they are emerging.
  • Seed: Bleeding Heart can also be started by seed or stem cuttings. Plants very often self-seed throughout your garden, although not to the point of being a nuisance. Sow seed outdoors in the fall; the seeds need a period of freezing temperatures.
    To start seeds indoors, place seeds in a pot of soil. Put the pot in a plastic bag and place in the freezer for 6-8 weeks. Remove the pot and all to germinate and grow in regular seedling conditions.

Caring for Bleeding Heart Plants

Bleeding Hearts require very little maintenance.

Pruning: No pruning or deadheading is required of Dicentra spectabilis, since it won’t bloom again. Leave the flowers, if you want it to go to seed. You can trim back the foliage when it starts to turn ugly.

Fringed-leaf varieties will eventually get a little ragged looking and can be sheared back to their basal growth. They will re-leaf and rebloom.

Feeding: Bleeding Heart is not a heavy feeder, so when to fertilize depends on the quality of your soil. If you have rich, organic soil that is amended every year, you won’t have to feed at all. Bleeding Hearts are woodland plants and do especially well with a top dressing of leaf mold.

Watering: Keep plants well watered throughout the summer, especially in warmer weather. Even then, they may be ephemeral and disappear until the fall or next spring. If you’ve recently planted your Bleeding Heart, it would be wise to mark the spot, so you don’t accidentally dig in the area while your Bleeding Heart is dormant. Western Bleeding Heart is a little more drought tolerant than the other species, but it’s still best to treat them all as woodland plants and provide a moist, but not wet, environment.

Problems: The biggest foe of Bleeding Heart is summer heat. Gardeners in warmer zones will have a tougher time establishing their plants than those in the colder zones.

Leaves are susceptible to leaf spot. The easiest solution is to shear back the affected foliage.

Although Bleeding Heart likes a moist soil, it can’t tolerate heavy, wet soil and may get root rot if left with wet feet too long.