Showy and easy to grow, the old-fashioned bleeding heart defines its genus, Dicentra. The name, based on the heart-shaped pink flowers with "drops" of white, signifying blood, is macabre perhaps, yet the plant displays nature at its most inventive. Gardeners looking for a different visual effect will also find other dicentra worthy of attention, such as the less colorful but long-flowering fringed bleeding heart and the ephemeral dicentras. These have colorful common names such as squirrel corn and Dutchman's breeches.
The old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), one of 20 dicentra species worldwide, arrived in Europe from Asia in the 19th century. Other dicentras are native to North America, where their preferred environments are hillsides and rocky outcrops. The two fringed bleeding heart types (Dicentra eximia and Dicentra formosa) evolved independently of each other a continent apart. Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis) are native to the eastern United States and Canada.
Few dicentra species are in cultivation, and not all share the bleeding heart common name. Longhorn steer's-head (Dicentra uniflora) and shorthorn steer's-head (Dicentra pauciflora) are pale pink species that are native to the West Coast. Their common names describe their flattened flowers with a vague heart shape reminiscent of a steer's head. Sierra bleeding heart (Dicentra nevadensis) is related in appearance to the fringed types, and come in whites, yellows and pale pinks.
Dutchman's breeches, with its inverted white "pantaloon" flowers, goes dormant shortly after flowering, as does the squirrel corn. The latter variety bears white or pink heart-shaped flowers, and is named for its yellow tubers that resemble corn. The fringed bleeding hearts are pink, rose or white, and grow to 18 inches. The most familiar dicentra, the old-fashioned bleeding heart, can be white as well as pink, and it grows to 3 feet tall. A hybrid with bright yellow foliage, aptly named Gold Heart (Dicentra spectabilis "Gold Heart"), is also available.
Dicentra species prefer a partial shade to shade environment, and soil that is moist but well drained with humus mixed in. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, dry spells will cause dicentras to go dormant earlier in the season, including the fringed bleeding heart types that don't usually die back until fall. Prune back the spent flowers of these varieties to prolong their bloom. Dicentras are hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 to 9.
Dutchman's breeches and squirrel corn are wonderful in a woodland garden, but not in a traditional garden border, because of their early dormancy. The fringed bleeding hearts look great lining a shady walkway. Their foliage, texture and hue play up the delicate flowers. The old-fashioned bleeding heart looks spectacular in a mixed border. Plant goatsbeard (Aruncus) or a hosta to fill the empty space when this dicentra goes dormant.
Wild bleeding hearts propagate by seed. Any other form of propagation of these varieties points to human removal of specimens from the wild, the equivalent of poaching in the plant world. Cultivated varieties, especially the old-fashioned bleeding heart and the fringed varieties, are easily propagated by division in the early fall. Seed collection is another method, albeit slower, involving a period of chilling and sowing seeds in the spring.
All parts of dicentra plants are poisonous if ingested.