Bleeding hearts bring grace to spring gardens

Everyone loves Bleeding Hearts, with their delicate flowers — each reminiscent of a little pink heart with a tiny drop of blood dripping from it — that are perfectly complimented by mounds of dainty fern-like leaves. They bloom in mid-spring, once the weather is settled and winter’s chill is out of the ground.
There are actually several kinds of Bleeding Hearts and their near relatives — all of which make delightful plants for the spring garden.
Fringed Bleeding Hearts
Exquisite plants from the mountains of Appalachia
The diminutive Fringed Bleeding Heart, Dicentra eximia, which also goes by the odd name of Turkey Corn, is a North American native found along the spine of Appalachian Mountains, from Southwestern Pennsylvania to North Carolina.
Since it thrives where the soil is acidic and summers are moist, Fringed Bleeding Hearts are also quite at home in our Vermont gardens (with the possible exception of those along the limestone ridges where the soils are likely to be more alkaline).
It may come as a surprise to discover that, although the Fringed Bleeding Heart is usually considered a springtime flower, it actually blooms on and off all summer long. So plant it where you can appreciate its dainty personality throughout the season.
Native to Vermont
The Fringed Bleeding Heart also has two lovely relatives that belong to the same Dicentra genus, which are native to Vermont. These are Squirrel Corn — Dicentra canadensis — and Dutchman’s Breeches — Dicentra cucullaria. Each spring I see both just above our house in the forest, which is part of the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area.
Dicentra canadensis, with heart-shaped flowers clustered atop short stems, is a bit like a white version of Dicentra eximia. But I have no idea how it came by its peculiar name, Squirrel Corn. Maybe squirrels do indeed enjoy feasting on those knobby little roots.
The plants of Squirrel Corn are fairly compact and apparently readily self-seed. So, squirrels notwithstanding, in the wild one usually finds several plants growing near one another.
By contrast, a single plant of Dutchman’s Breeches will eventually become a substantial colony with many flowering stalks above mounds of feathery leaves — always a delightful sight.
I imagine, in times past, those small white flowers dangling from the stem reminded people of a row of sailor’s pantaloons drying on the wash-line — hence their quaint name Dutchman’s Breeches.
Both Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches would make great additions to a woodland garden. But it important to note that, unlike the Fringed Bleeding Heart, Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches are spring ephemerals meaning that, as soon as they have flowered and set seed, the plants will go dormant for the remainder of the summer.
New varieties
Plant hybridizers are always seeking the opportunity to make new and better varieties by crossing closely related plant species.
And, in the case of the Dicentra genus, they experimented with crossing our Eastern bleeding heart, Dicentra eximia, with its Western counterpart, Dicentra formosa, as well as with a related plant from eastern Asia — Dicentra peregrina.
   DUTCHMEN’S BREECHES ARE a kind of bleeding heart native to Vermont. Photo by Dick Conrad
The results are some lovely, cultivated varieties that thrive in the shade — collectively called Fern-leaf Bleeding Hearts — including Burning Hearts, Fire Island, King of Hearts and Red Fountain. It should be noted, Fire Island also prospers in the sun.
Best of all, the Fern-leaf Bleeding Hearts bloom for most of the summer, with flowers about 12-18 inches high above a circle of delicate leaves.
Good ol’ fashioned
Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts are perhaps the most well-known type of Bleeding Heart and certainly the longest in cultivation. You may remember them gracing your grandmother’s garden.
Their dainty pink and white flowers hang from their stems like charms along a necklace, making a beautiful contrast above the mounded leaves. The robust plants eventually grow to about 30-inches high and wide.
There are also several lovely cultivars, including White Bleeding Heart, the more compact Valentine and Gold Heart, which has golden leaves. Try combining two or more of these together for some interesting effects.
However, if we have another hot summer like last year, expect these Old Fashioned charmers will become dormant by mid-July.
For the record
Because of the similarity of their flowers, Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts (with a Latin name of Dicentra spectabilis) and Fringed Bleeding Hearts (such as Dicentra eximia) were always considered to be part of the same Dicentra genus.
But attempts to create hybrids between Dicentra spectabilis and other members of the Dicentra genus, have proven elusive, indicating they are probably not that closely related after all.
So, just for the record, botanists have recently moved the Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts into their own genus and given them a new name: Lamprocapnos spectabilis, which is now used on many websites.
But, whatever their formal name, we gardeners still love them!
Growing Bleeding Hearts
All types of Bleeding Hearts, as well as their relatives Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn, would make lovely additions to your garden. You can purchase many of the varieties I have mentioned here at Rockydale Gardens in Bristol, and American Meadows in Shelburne carries all but Squirrel Corn.
Since Bleeding Hearts are woodland plants, choose a spot that will be partially shaded throughout the season. Loosen the soil and then add plenty of decayed leaves (leaf mould) or other organic matter from your compost pile to mimic their natural habitat.
Remember that some of these beautiful plants, especially the Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts as well as the Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn, go dormant in summer. So, while they look lovely in springtime, it is nice to grow them among other shade-loving plants, like ferns and hostas, that will fill in the gaps for the remainder of the season.
Since the Fringed Bleeding Hearts are quite short (less than 18 inches) be sure to plant them at the front of the border, perhaps near the door or alongside a walkway, where you can enjoy them each time you step outside. And while the old fashioned Bleeding Hearts are somewhat taller it is still nice to grow them where you can enjoy their delicate flowers up close.
Plant some Bleeding Hearts now and each year they will return to tell you “spring is here to stay.”
   Nestled alongside the huge leaves of Astilboides, this clump of delicate Fringed Bleeding Hearts in Judith’s Goshen garden continues to bloom for most of the summer in Judith’s Goshen garden. Photo by Dick Conrad
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program as well as Landscape and Planting Design at Vermont Technical College. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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