Bleeding Heart Flower Care: Growing Dicentra Spectabilis
Thinking of adding some bleeding heart flowers to your garden, but aren't sure where to start? Bleeding hearts are a shade garden favorite and can grow across many different hardiness zones. In this article, gardening expert Paige Foley explains everything you need to know about bleeding heart flowers and their care.
The beautiful pinks, whites and reds of bleeding heart flowers have captured the hearts of many gardeners for years. The heart shaped blooms hang from arched stems like lockets on a necklace. Their low maintenance and ease of establishment are perfect for beginner gardens and experienced gardeners as well.
Bleeding heart is a member of the papaveraceae family or better known as the poppy family. They bloom in early spring, shortly after the tulips bloom. They last until early summer but once temperatures become too hot and sunlight is too intense they will go dormant. Bleeding Hearts simply can’t handle the summer heat.
If you are looking for an earlier blooming perennial that loves shady conditions, bleeding heart is an excellent choice. Now that you’ve decided to grow bleeding hearts, how do you grow and maintain them? In this article we will take a deeper look at the bleeding heart plants and their care. Ready to learn more? Let’s dig in!
Bleeding Heart Flower Overview
Plant Type Perennial
Plant Spacing 2 to 3 feet
Native Area Asia
Sunlight exposure Partial shade to full shade
Plant height 2 to 3 feet
Water requirements Moderate
Plant Depth Seeds 1 inch and in Pots – Depth of pot
Hardiness Zone 3-9
Soil Type Moist, well-draining
Pest Aphids, Slugs, Snails
Diseases Powdery mildew and leaf spot
About Bleeding Hearts
Bleeding heart is a cottage garden staple, this early bloom perennial has a unique bloom pattern that sets it apart from all other plants. They stand out from the crowd and everyone knows them for their heart shaped blooms. They have captured the hearts of many gardeners for years.
This plant goes by many names. Some other common names are chinese pants, lady’s locket, lady-in-a-bath and tearing heart.
They are one of the first plants to bloom in the spring and the blooms are short-lived. They can’t handle the summer heat and quickly become dormant when temperatures get too hot. Many people panic when this happens because the plant looks as if it’s dying. The plant has finished its life cycle of gathering nutrients and has begun to store them.
Bleeding hearts are a shorter perennial and only reach 2 to 3 feet in height and width. Keep in mind that it will take them three to four years to reach full mature height. Because of their lower stature, they are excellent in lower flower beds, containers and along the foundation of buildings.
One of the most charming and elegant blooms in any garden is the bleeding heart. They have a unique heart shaped bloom with a teardrop beneath that catches the eyes and hearts of many. Their blooms hang like pedants on arched stems. They flower in pinks, whites and reds from early spring to summer.
If this is your first year planting them, chances are you may not see the blooms the first year. If they are producing lush, green foliage but not producing blooms, wait until the following year and blooms should appear.
Bleeding hearts attract pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Plant in a pollinator garden to add a woodland charm and to give pollinators an early bloomer to enjoy.
Sunlight can affect how much and often they bloom. If exposed to too much sun, their leaves will yellow and blooms will be far and few between. We will talk about the sunlight requirements a little later in the article.
Bleeding hearts are a member of the poppy family and formerly the genus Dicentra spectabilis. In recent years, they changed the genus to Lamprocapnos spectabilis. They are often still referred to by their old name which can be confusing.
They are native to northern China and Japan and were brought to England by plant explorers in 1846. Bleeding hearts are award winning plants and a number of varieties have won the Royal Horticultural Award of Garden Merit.
How to Grow
When starting to grow these popular plants, it’s important to make sure you have all their growth needs lined up properly. You need to have the timing right on planting, the correct location, sunlight, and water needs. Let’s take a look at each step of the growth process in a little further detail.
When to Plant
Let’s talk about when you should start planting. The timing may vary depending on if you are planting seed, bare root or potted plants. Bare roots are very easy to handle and are easy to plant. They will need to be planted in the spring while they are still dormant.
Potted plants can be planted anytime but should be done after the first and last frost of the year. Bare root and potted plants are typically how nurseries and garden centers choose to sell bleeding hearts. If you are able to find seed, you will want to sow into the soil in the fall.
When handling bare root or potted plants be careful not to break or damage the roots. The roots have eyes on them, similar to a potato. If these growing points are damaged, the roots won’t send out shoots.
Plant Spacing and Depth
You can either start by seed, bare root or in a pot. If you choose to plant by seed, plant about an inch deep. Bareroot and pots should have 2 to 3 feet of space and cover the bare root with about an inch of soil. If you are planting from a pot, dig a hole that is similar in depth to the pot.
Bleeding hearts are a low, clumping perennial. Be sure to give them plenty of space to grow for years to come. Planting the seeds, bare roots or potted plants 3 to 4 feet apart. They do self seed but they don’t spread quickly.
Bleeding hearts thrive in areas that have partial to full shade. Your region is going to determine if they can handle more or less sunlight. If you live in northern regions where temperatures are colder and sunlight is less intense, a bleeding heart can handle more sunlight.
If you are growing them in hardiness zones on the higher end, they may need closer to full shade. The warmer temperatures and more intense sunlight can cause the plant to fizzle out quickly. Soils will dry out much quicker in warmer regions and can cause more stress on the plant.
Bleeding hearts prefer well-draining, fertile soils and slightly acidic to neutral soil pH. Avoid soils that become too soggy and are poorly draining. Wet soils for long periods of time can lead to root rots which will ultimately kill your plant. But with all that said, bleeding hearts have been known to tolerate poorer soil conditions compared to other plants.
If your soil isn’t heavy in organic matter, consider adding grass clippings, dead leaves or even kitchen scraps. This will help the soil’s overall health. They are also drought tolerant to an extent. Bleeding hearts will need more water if your region is experiencing long periods of heat and no rain.
Bleeding hearts are not a fan of dry conditions, they will quickly lose their blooms and begin to yellow if allowed to sit in dry soils for extended periods of time. Consider watering a few times a week to keep their unique blooms shining through the spring.
Provide at least half an inch of water per week to keep them blooming through the season. If provided enough water early in the spring, blooms may last till late summer. Avoid over watering as this can cause the leaves to yellow and the plant will begin to die.
Adding mulch can be beneficial for many reasons. Mulch is a great insulator and will protect the roots from extreme frost damage in the winter. Mulch is also excellent at retaining soil moisture. This is great news for bleeding hearts who prefer more constant soil moisture.
There are many types of mulch, you can use wood chips, dead leaves and grass clippings. I have had them planted at the edge of a tree line and the dead leaves from those trees were great protection for the plant and the soil.
Climate and Temperature
Bleeding hearts have a hardiness zone from 3 to 9. They prefer cool spring temperatures and are at their peak when most plants are just starting to grow. You must be cautious of when and where you plant.
Temperatures will impact their growth. They are a spring blooming plant that will bloom around the same time as tulips. In warmer temperatures the plant can’t reach its full potential and will die rather quickly. Zones 3 to 9 are perfect because temperatures tend to stay cooler through spring to early summer.
Once temperatures become too hot, the bleeding heart will go dormant. Don’t panic if it appears like it’s dying. It simply can’t handle the heat and will come back in the spring when temperatures are cooler.
If you live in zones above a 9 and love the look of bleeding heart, consider planting as a houseplant! They have shallow roots and don’t require much sunlight. Blooms may last longer indoors due to the controlled temperatures and frequent waterings.
Bleeding hearts are low maintenance feeders. If you live in regions with rich, organic soils you will most likely never have to feed your plant.
If you have poor soils, consider applying a slow-release fertilizer in the spring. Since they are native to woodland areas, adding a top dressing of dead leaves can be beneficial.
Pruning isn’t necessary for a bleeding heart to continue blooming and growing during the season. Refrain from deadheading the spent blooms if you want the plant to go to seed. Once the plant is finished and begins to die back, you can cut the leaves and stems back to the soil surface.
Sometimes a location we thought was ideal for a certain plant, simply isn’t. Maybe there is more sunlight than we thought or another plant overpowers another. As gardeners, we want to ensure every plant can reach its full potential. Transplanting is a great way to save a plant from a less than ideal situation.
Transplanting can be scary, especially for new gardeners. Luckily, you can transplant them to a new location if done at the right time and extreme care is taken.
When transplanting, do it early in the spring or late fall. The plant is dormant during these times and transplanting will be less stressful. In the spring, dig up the root mass before leaves set on the plant. If you move it too late in the spring, you could damage the roots or stems.
If you choose to transplant in the fall, wait until after the first frost and dig the root crown from the soil. These are your best chances to transplant and will be the seasons that cause the least amount of damage during the move.
Preparing For Winter
Bleeding hearts were meant for colder regions. This is great news for all of us who live where it snows for many months and temperatures dip below zero. Keep in mind, the plant never dies, it just goes dormant. The leaves and stems have finished drawing energy to store in the root system through the winter.
Preparing for winter is straightforward. They naturally die back in the winter season and remain dormant in the soil until spring. Once the plant begins to die back, you can cut 1 to 2 inches above the soil surface.
Be sure to remove old stems and debris from the garden. Diseases and pests can overwinter on old plant material and carry over to the spring.
In the fall, you can lay down a layer of mulch or straw to help protect the roots and retain moisture. Be sure to remove the mulch or straw before the ground thaws and they begin to sprout.
Growing in a Container
Because of their low stature, they do well in containers. They are early spring blooming perennials that can be planted right away in the spring to bring fresh, new growth to your space. They have shallow root systems that make them a good choice for pots.
That being said, you will still want to choose a large, heavy container to accommodate the plant. Plant annuals or perennials that are shorter plants underneath them. Their stems will arch and allow the plants underneath to show.
Bleeding hearts will last 4 to 5 years in a container before you need to divide and repot. They are winter hardy depending on your hardiness zone so if you want you can leave the container out during the winter. Most of us don’t like leaving our container out to be exposed to the elements.
Once the foliage has turned yellow and died. Cut down to about an inch above the soil surface. Leave the root mass in the potting soil and place in storage for the winter. You can place your container indoors in an undefeated area. Undeaded garages, barns or sheds are great options.
Treat them in a container as you would if they were in the ground. They need shade and frequent waterings to keep them blooming as long as possible.
Growing as a Houseplant
Have you fallen in love with a bleeding heart like many gardeners but you live in a zone above a 9? Well, you’re in luck! You can still grow a bleeding heart indoors.
Since they can’t handle high temperatures, growing indoors in zones above a 9 is a great option. Indoor climates are more controllable, allowing them to bloom longer than outdoors. Remember, they can get up to 3 feet tall so place them in an indoor location that allows for proper growth.
Plant in a pot that is at least 12 inches deep and wide to allow for proper growth. Choose a pot that will retain water well without causing soggy soils. If potted and indoors, place them in indirect sunlight.
They will naturally go dormant in cooler weather. Don’t be surprised if once temperatures outdoors drop that your indoor plant begins to bloom less frequently.
Bleeding hearts are considered toxic to animals and humans. If any part of the plant is ingested it can cause severe stomach pain. The foliage can also be a skin irritant. Consider wearing gloves when working with the plant to help protect your skin.
They are commonly ingested by cattle, sheep, horses and dogs. The plant contains alkaloids that can negatively affect animals and humans. Be cautious and plant them where pets and children have limited access.
Bleeding hearts can be propagated by seed, clump division and stem cuttings. Propagation from a stem cutting is best done in the spring or early summer. If you choose to start from seed, the best time to sow is in the fall. Propagating is the best way to establish new patches of bleeding heart or give them to other gardeners.
Let’s take a look at how to propagate by clump division. This is best done once the blooms are spent for the season. Begin by digging around the base of the plant. Once that is complete, pull the root ball from the soil. Examine the root ball for pink buds of growth. Cut these sections containing the pink buds.
You can place the root ball back in the soil or discard it if the plant is older and not producing many blooms. Plant the new cuttings in desired locations and water frequently.
If you decided that propagating by cutting is the best choice for you, here are some tips to help make it easier. Simply cut off a stem from your plant. Strip the leaves from the bottom portion of the stem. Place the stem into a pot with potting soil and place in indirect sunlight. Water frequently and you should see new growth within 3 to 4 weeks.
Since these perennials are early bloomers, they are best planted with companion plants. Companion plants will cover the spent and dying foliage during the hot summer months.
Some common companion plants are hostas, ferns, lamium and bluebell. These are of course just suggestions but any shade-loving plant that is full and will bloom from mid-summer to fall is just fine.
You can also consider planting ‘King of Hearts’ bleeding hearts that will bloom a little longer than traditional varieties. This variety will bloom from spring to fall in cooler climates.
There are many varieties of the Bleeding Heart that have become quite popular. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the most common, as well as how their looks and growing conditions may differ from one another.
‘Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart’
This tried and true variety is the most common and what most of us think of when we talk about bleeding hearts. One of the oldest cultivars is still being planted and for good reasons. The long, arched stems support a row of pink, heart-shaped flowers with delicate white teardrops below.
A compact variety with dark green foliage that produces red stems. The heart-shaped cherry-red blooms hang in a row upon the stem. Plant with other shade-loving plants that bloom at the beginning of the summer.
‘White Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart’
Delicate and clean this white bleeding heart is sure to stand out in the spring. With beautiful, white heart-shaped blooms arching from clumps of fern-like foliage. An excellent choice in rural or woodland settings as they are naturally rabbit and deer repellent.
Noted for its golden leaves and peachy stems, this variety is a great addition to a shady area. The blooms are an elegant red-pink heart shape that hang in neat rows along the stem. They grow in clumps, up to 18-24 inches and 24-36 inches wide.
Like all plants, bleeding hearts can succumb to a few common problems. While they are generally disease and pest free, they are not completely immune to a number of different plant conditions. Let’s look at the most common.
If you notice black, pink, silver or white spots on your bleeding heart, this is most likely powdery mildew. A treatable disease with fungicide if caught immediately. To prevent the growth and spread of powdery mildew, water the plants at the soil surface. Also check that plants have enough airflow and aren’t overcrowded.
Bleeding hearts naturally turn yellow when they begin to die from the summer heat. If temperatures are increasing and you’re noticing yellowing leaves, this is natural. Yellowing leaves can also be a sign that the plant is receiving too much water.
The soils should be moist and not soggy. If the soils are poor draining, consider a new location or add some organic matter.
Brown or Black Spots
If you notice brown or black spots on your bleeding heart, it is most likely a leaf spot. The brown and black spots will grow larger and begin to produce a yellow ring or halo.
The yellow spot will begin to rot out and be completely gone. If you are noticing this on your plant, then the disease has progressed too far and treatments will most likely not work.
These little buggers are the number one problem for every gardener. They feed on new growth and suck the sweet sap from the leaves. They will appear on the stems and underside of the leaves. Aphids are stronger in numbers.
Typically, a few aphids won’t cause too much damage but if large masses appear they can kill the plant. Talk to your local garden center for methods of control or to purchase an insecticide. Allows follow direction labels when applying chemicals.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long do their blooms last?
They are early spring bloomers. The blooms only last 6 to 8 weeks depending on the temperatures. Blooms can last longer if planted in full shade and temperatures stay cooler.
Are they considered invasive?
Although they are native to woodland areas, they have a tendency to stay in nice neat clumps. They can reseed but don’t spread very quickly.
Can you grow them successfully in pots or containers?
Yes, you can grow them in containers outdoors or indoors. Just ensure they aren’t exposed to too much sunlight and soils never get dried out.
There aren’t many plants to choose from when trying to find something to fill a shade area. Not to mention how versatile they are! You can grow indoors or outdoors and even in a container or the ground. Bleeding heart is a must-have in shade spots to bring color and charm to darker places of the garden. Their charming heart shape blooms are sure to win the hearts of any garder.