• T.M. O’Shaughnessy

How to care for a bleeding heart


The perfectly intricate blossoms of the bleeding heart may look delicate but this hearty perennial is a gardener’s favourite, often providing the first visible blooms of the season.

If ever there was a name that had nothing to do with the reality of what was being named, it’s the traditional garden perennial gruesomely called bleeding hearts.

Once known as dicentra spectabilis, now lamprocapnos spectabilis, the bleeding heart is actually the most delicate, elegant and retiring of blooms. And there is no blood anywhere.

Originating in Asia, these pinky-red and white heart-shaped flowers, and sometimes just white, suspend themselves from gently arching stalks. Rather old fashioned, rather pretty, this flower was brought to the west in the 19th century and was obviously named bleeding hearts by some depressed Victorian writer-with-the-vapours type. Because nothing could be farther from the gentle floral reality of l.spectabilis.

As a dependable perennial, you can’t beat the loyalty of a bleeding heart.

It grows wherever you plant it, and resurrects itself every spring so that it has flowers for you before most other garden favourites. It grows quite rapidly, and if you have an ugly corner, the bleeding heart can really help with its light green or golden foliage and its waxy pastel or pure white blooms. It’s not fussy, and even if you decide to move it (and in my experience it just loves a splitting every year or two as well), it remains a pretty prolific plant.

As you might imagine, in the language of flowers, the bleeding heart packs a wallop.

Signifying deep emotion, compassion and unconditional love, you could send a big message with l.spectabilis. Though it’s only prudent to note that the flip side of the bleeding heart is unrequited love. But the message this plant sends is usually something so positive and warm, you can ignore that part. In fact, I think it would be one of those perennials inherited from your family garden that you would always want to grow your own garden someday. My mother’s bleeding heart is alive and well in my sister’s yard, and I know of at least one more garden that holds this perennial as a much-loved rescued flower from long ago days. The bleeding heart is just the kind of plant to satisfy on that level.

Without any evident sense of irony, there is an elegant simplicity to the many garden manuals that contain the section How to Care for a Bleeding Heart. Sun and shade, or light shade, is best. Rich organic soil with compost that never dries out would be perfect. A woodland setting, its original habitat, would be ideal. But a bleeding heart will cope with most conditions, so it’s one of those invaluable “plant and forget about it” kind of perennials.

And let’s face it, we all need a few of those.

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