The bleeding heart plant, native to northern China, Korea and Japan, is a much-loved spring-blooming perennial. Its scientific name is derived from the Greek words “dis,” meaning two, and “kentros,” meaning spurs, a reference to the shape of the plant’s flower, according to the Canadian Gardening website.
The name bleeding heart is derived from the blossom’s resemblance to a puffy pink heart with two drops at its tip. The shape of the flower has led to some other interesting common names. “Lyre flower” refers to the fully-opened flower, which is shaped like a small harp; “Dutchman’s trousers” comes from the flower’s resemblance to a pair of baggy pants. To understand the name “lady in the bath,” it is necessary to hold the flower pointed-side up. Gently depress the pink petals to expose the white “lady,” or inner petal of the flower.
The flowers open beginning in April, dangling along the plant’s gracefully arching stems. If in a location to its liking and not allowed to dry out, a large specimen will display blooms for as long as four to six weeks. The gray-green leaves are soft, lacy and finely divided. The most commonly found bleeding heart has blossoms of pale to deep pink, but there is also a white-flowered version, Dicentra spectabilis “Alba.” After blooming, the foliage gradually turns yellow, and the plant goes dormant for the remainder of the season.
The bleeding heart is happiest in rich, well-drained, evenly moist soil. These plants prefer partial shade, with either an exposure of early morning sun and afternoon shade, or of sun filtered by trees. Bleeding hearts produce few flowers if planted in too much shade, while too much sun will cause the leaves to burn and quickly go dormant. A mature bleeding heart can become quite large, as much as 3 feet high by 3 feet wide, so keep its ultimate size in mind when placing it in your garden. When the plant enters dormancy in summer, cut its leaves to the ground and allow summer-blooming plants to fill in around it, as recommended by garden author Jeff Cox in the book "Perennial All-Stars."
Bleeding hearts will happily grow undisturbed for years, but you can divide your plant during its dormant stage if you wish to make new plants. The roots are long, thick and brittle, so handle them with care as you are digging and replanting.
Bleeding hearts are an excellent addition to a woodland flower border or shade garden. Pair them with bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and Siberian squill, and other spring-blooming perennials such as Jacob’s ladder, cranesbill, epimedium and pulmonaria. Hostas make excellent partners for bleeding hearts and help disguise their dormancy, because the leaves of the hosta are hitting their stride when the foliage of the bleeding heart is fading.
The bleeding heart can also be used as a cut flower and is long-lasting in a vase. The soft leaves and arching stems with their dangling flowers add charm to any spring bouquet. Cut bleeding heart stems when the flowers are open, recommends Hobby Farms, an online magazine for rural enthusiasts.