How to Care for a Bleeding Heart Plant

How to care for a Bleeding Heart Plant cover image

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is an eye-catching addition to any garden. Flowering in early spring the plants heart-shaped flowers sit on arching blue-green foliage. Popular with pollinators, the flowers can be in shades of red, pink or white.

A herbaceous perennial, bleeding heart plant is ideal in a woodland or forest garden planting scheme. A great way to add structure to spring beds, once the heat of summer arrives these plants will die back. Fringed-leaf cultivars are more heat tolerant and in some USDA zones will repeat flower throughout the summer.

1 The distinctive flowers that give the bleeding heart plant its nameThe distinctive flowers that give the bleeding heart plant its name. These flowers also make it an attractive addition to any garden. Happiest in shade and cool climates, many varieties will cease flowering once the high summer temperatures arrive. 

Warning

Bleeding heart foliage can irritate sensitive skin. Wear gloves and wash your hands after handling plants. They can also cause mild stomach upsets if ingested.

The plants are also toxic to pets.

Bleeding Heart Varieties

There are a number of different varieties of bleeding heart. They can all be grown in USDA zones 3-9. Most flower in the spring before dying back in the summer heat. However some cultivars are more heat tolerant. With the proper care these will flower throughout the summer until early fall.

Compact varieties of bleeding heart will reach 1.5 ft in height and spread. Larger varieties can reach 3 ft in height and spread.

Lamprocapnos Spectabilis is a partial to full shade loving variety, doing best in zones 3-9. A classic cottage garden variety, it produces attractive pink flowers with white centers in late spring. The cultivar Gold Heart produces pink flowers which sit on attractive golden foliage.

Lamprocapnos Spectabilis Alba is grown for its pure white flowers. Blooming in late spring with sufficient water flowering can be extended into the summer months. The cultivar Valentine produces stand out red flowers during the late spring and early fall. These make excellent cut flowers, lasting up to 2 weeks.

2 Pure white flowering varieties can look particularly attractive when set against lush green foliagePure white flowering varieties can look particularly attractive when set against lush, green foliage. A simple color scheme such as this can be just as effective as filling your flower beds with every color of the rainbow.

For something slightly different there are also fringed varieties of bleeding heart. Dicentra Eximia produces pink flowers and foliage that doesn’t die back in the summer heat. This is a heat tolerant variety suited to warmer gardens. The cultivar Snowdrift is a late spring to fall flowering variety. In cooler climates it will produce white flowers from late spring until early fall.

Reaching up to 15 inches in height Dicentra Luxuriant produces pink flowers from late spring until early fall. Like other Dicentras it is a heat tolerant plant and will sit in full sun positions in cooler climates. A sterile variety Luxuriant doesn’t go to seed.

Burning Hearts (Dicentra formosa) produces red flowers on fern like foliage from late spring until mid summer. A compact variety, reaching no more than 10 inches, it is ideal for container gardens.

Finally, Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a compact variety that enjoys partial shade. Excelling in zones 3-9 it produces white flowers from late spring until mid summer.

3 The colorful flowers of this plant is a reliable way to introduce early season color to your gardenThe colorful flowers of this plant is a reliable way to introduce early season color to your garden. As the summer warms up the plants will fade, their color replaced by other plants in your collection.

Planting Bleeding Heart

While these plants can be grown from seed they are most commonly purchased as young plants or grown from cuttings.

Plant bleeding heart from spring, after your last frost has passed, until early summer.

Bleeding heart plants thrive in partial sun or shaded positions. In the warmest USDA zones plant in shady, cool positions.In northern or cooler areas pink flowering varieties will cope in full sun if the soil is kept constantly moist.

An early flowering plant, many gardeners plant bleeding hearts close to deciduous trees. This combination allows bleeding hearts time and light to flower in the spring and early summer. The foliage of the deciduous tree will then provide it with shade during the warmest of the summer months.

All varieties like well draining soil that is kept constantly moist. Try to space them 1-2.5 ft apart, depending on the variety.

4 Planting in a favourable position and correctly spacing if you are growing more than one will help plants to flourishPlanting in a favourable position, and correctly spacing if you are growing more than one, will help plants to flourish. It will also help them to maintain a healthy growth habit, keeping pests and diseases at bay. 

Temperature and Humidity

The ideal temperature for bleeding heart plants is 55-75 ℉. You will notice bleeding heart plants begin to yellow as temperatures increase. This is perfectly natural and happens even if the plants are well watered.

While heat is a problem, these plants can tolerate humidity well.

How to Plant

Before planting amend the soil by digging in organic material such as homemade compost or ground bark. This helps to further improve the soil and its drainage abilities.

Dig a hole in the soil large enough to hold the root system. When planted the top of the eyes, or growing points of the root system, should sit just below the soil level. Place the plant in the hole with the roots facing downwards.

Fill in the hole, being careful not to overly compact the soil. Bare root plants, this means the roots of the plant are free from soil and any potential soil-borne problems, quickly establish themselves.

Water in well.

5 Properly prepare your beds before plantingProperly prepare your beds before planting. Loose, well-worked soil will help plants to easily establish a root system. It will also drain better than more compact soil, meaning it is less likely to become waterlogged. This will prevent your plants root system from becoming diseased and rotting.

Container Planting

If you are planting bleeding heart plants as part of a container garden, select a large pot. It should be large enough to comfortably hold a mature bleeding heart plant.

Your chosen pot should also be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom.

Fill the pot with well-draining, fresh potting soil. A humus rich mixture is ideal. Alternatively work peat moss or perlite into general purpose soil to improve its drainage properties. Plant as you would in the soil and water in well.

After planting, place a marker in the ground. While these plants are noticeable when in full flower during the fall and winter months they die back almost completely. Placing a marker will remind you of their location so that you won’t accidentally disturb the root system when planting bulbs or tending the soil.

Growing From Seed

Seeds can be harvested in the fall and sown immediately. Sow either in clean containers filled with fresh soil or in the garden. Plant each seed half an inch deep. Keep the soil moist until the first frost.

6 Always sow seeds into clean containers or trays filled with fresh compostAlways sow seeds into clean containers or trays filled with fresh compost. Dirty containers or old soil can contain pests or diseases, these can cause your plants to fail before they have even germinated. 

While the seeds should be protected from deep frosts and prolonged cold spells, don’t protect them completely. A winter chill is needed for the seeds to germinate. Alternatively the pots can be placed inside plastic bags and kept in a freezer for 6 to 8 weeks. Following this, place the pots in a light location and allow the seeds to germinate.

Germination occurs in the spring. Allow the seedlings to grow on before transplanting. Bleeding heart plants can be transplanted either in the spring, as growth begins, or in the fall once the foliage has died away. It may take a few years before young plants, especially those grown from seed, flower.

Caring for Bleeding Heart Plants

Once planted, bleeding heart plants are pleasingly low maintenance.

7 Properly caring for your plants will encourage them to grow and set flowersProperly caring for your plants will encourage them to grow and set flowers. Healthy, well cared for plants will reward your efforts with an abundance of blooms. 

Water

Water regularly throughout the summer. Don’t allow the soil to dry out. If the plants aren’t sufficiently watered they may fail or die back for the remainder of the season.

In gardens that require a lot of water it is a useful idea to harvest your own rainwater. You can then use the harvested rainwater to water your plants. This helps to cut down on water usage.

Feeding

Plants growing in rich, organic soil that is amended annually don’t require fertilization. Naturally woodland plants, they will appreciate a regular top dressing application of lead mold.

A slow release plant food can also be applied to the soil around the plant when foliage first emerges in spring. Home made compost can also be applied at this time. While this is not necessary it does encourage longer lasting flowers to set.

Mulch

Apply an organic mulch to the soil around the base of the plant. This not only helps to keep the plant cool it will also help the soil to retain moisture. As the organic mulch, such as leaves or homemade compost  breaks down it returns nutrients to the soil, further boosting the plant.

Weeding

Regularly weed around the base of plants. This is particularly vital in spring as new growth is emerging. Weeds can grow incredibly quickly. If left unchecked they can smother plants, blocking light and harvesting nutrients and moisture.

If weeds are a particular problem in your garden try applying a homemade weed killer. Just as effective as chemical or commercial controls, these homemade solutions enable you to know exactly what you are adding to your soil.

Pruning

Bleeding heart plants don’t require regular or pruning. Foliage can be removed once it turns brown and starts to die away. As long as the foliage isn’t diseased it can then be added to your compost heap.

Fringed-leaf varieties can become ragged in appearance. In the fall trim the plants back to their basal growth. They will regrow the following spring.

Remove spent flowers unless you wish them to go to seed.  Be aware, if seed pods are allowed to open on the soil the plants will readily self-seed and spread.

How to Propagate

You can propagate bleeding hearts either by seed, division or from cuttings.

It can be difficult to successfully divide bleeding heart plants. Carefully divide the plants once flowering has finished for the year. Fringed leaf varieties can be divided in early spring, as new growth emerges.

8 When dividing root systems make sure you use a clean sharp knife
When dividing root systems make sure you use a clean, sharp knife. Once a clean division is made, carefully remove as much old soil as possible before planting the divisions in their new locations. Remember to water in and mulch after planting. 

Carefully dig up the roots, trying not to damage the root system. With a clean, sharp knife remove any dried up roots. The remaining root system can then be divided. As you divide make sure that each individual tuber has at least one eye.

Once separated plant each tuber, with the eyes on top, about an inch deep. Water and mulch the soil.

How to Propagate from Cuttings

This is the most effective method of propagation. The best time to propagate cuttings is in early summer after the flowers have faded. The night before taking the cuttings water the plant well. This ensures that the entire plant is well hydrated.

In the early morning take softwood cuttings from the plant. Softwood is new growth that is fairly pliable, this means it won’t snap when you bend it. Each cutting should be 3-5 inches in lengths. Cut cleanly from the plant with a sharp secateurs.

Remove foliage from the bottom half of the cutting. Brush the bottom of the cutting with rooting hormone. While not essential this helps to encourage roots to emerge.

Fill a clean container with fresh, well draining potting mix. Water the mix well so that it is moist. With a pencil make a hole in the potting mix. Insert the cutting in the hole. Gently firm the soil around the stem, removing air pockets.

Cover the container with a clear plastic bag. This helps to maintain humidity levels. Don’t allow the plastic bag to touch the cutting. You can use straws, chopsticks or bent coathangers to create a frame around the cutting.

Place the container in indirect light. The temperature should average between 65-75℉. At night the temperature shouldn’t drop below 55℉. Don’t place cuttings on windowsills. Cuttings can scorch in direct sunlight, causing the plant to fail.

Check the soil every day to ensure it isn’t drying out. If temperatures seem too warm, or moisture appears on the inside of the bag, poke a few small ventilation holes into the plastic bag.

Roots may take 21 days to emerge, depending on conditions. Once rooted remove the plants from the plastic bag and grow on. Keep the soil moist. Repot when the plants outgrow the original container.

Once new growth is noticeable the plants can be placed outside. Harden off in a sheltered spot for a few weeks before transplanting into their final position.

Companion Planting

Bleeding heart is a good companion plant for hellebores, pulmonaria and brunnera. These plants all tend to flower around the same time. Planting together can help to create a woodland cottage scheme.

9 The purple flowers of Monkshood make a good companion plantThe purple flowers of Monkshood make a good companion plant. Bleeding heart plants can look particularly effective when planted amongst other shade loving plants. 

Plants such as hosta, ferns, coral bells and monkshood are also good choices. These emerge as bleeding heart begins to die back, filling holes in garden beds. Shade loving annuals such as begonias or impatiens and spreading perennials such as lungwort will also fill in these spaces. This is a comprehensive list of shade loving plants, which can be grown alongside your bleeding heart plant.

Common Bleeding Heart Problems

Bleeding heart plants are unlikely to succumb to serious pests infestations or diseases. They are also deer and rabbit resistant.

New growth should be protected from slugs and snails.

Plants can also fall victim to aphid infestations. These can be treated with a blast from a hosepipe. Bleeding heart plants are sensitive to soap-based products and treatments. If you do need to apply a soapy water solution test it on a few leaves before applying to the entire plant.

Plants may develop verticillium wilt, downy mildew, fungal leaf spot or rust. Properly spacing the plants, so air can circulate, and regularly weeding the base will help to keep the plants healthy.

Downy mildew can be treated with an application of fungicide. Other issues, such as fusarium wilt, are more serious and can’t be easily cured. Instead you will need to dig up and destroy affected plants.

10 Distinctive and attractive bleeding heart is an easy to care for garden plantDistinctive and attractive, bleeding heart is an easy to care for garden plant. Versatile enough to fit into a range of schemes, these plants reliably provide spring color to a garden bed or patio.

Easy to care for bleeding heart is an eye catching addition to the garden. Working in a range of schemes from cottage gardens to Asian and woodland planting schemes they are ideal for adding interest to shady spaces. Smaller varieties, such as King of Hearts can even be planted in rock or container gardens.

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