How to Plant and Grow Bleeding Heart

Add cottage garden charm to your landscape with this perennial.

A classic cottage garden staple, bleeding heart (Dicentra) has long been a favorite in perennial gardens. It's easy to see how this plant, with its heart-shaped pink or white blooms, captures the love of so many gardeners. Bleeding heart plants are quick to come up in the spring, and their long stems with pendulous, romantic flowers beg to be admired.

The old-fashioned bleeding heart, D. spectabilis, now also known as Lamprocapnos spectabilis, is truly an easy-to-grow perennial. These plants are quick to pop up alongside spring bulbs and swiftly grow to full size. D. spectabilis leaves are generally a pleasant blue-green or gold, and its heart-shaped blossoms can come in a range of colors, including pink, red, white-reds, and white.

Bleeding heart, D. spectabilis, is known to be toxic to humans, dogs, and cats when eaten or touched.

Bleeding Heart Overview

Genus Name Dicentra
Common Name Bleeding Heart
Plant Type Perennial
Light Part Sun, Shade
Height 6 to 12 inches
Width 1 to 3 feet
Flower Color Pink, Red, White
Season Features Fall Bloom, Spring Bloom, Summer Bloom
Special Features Cut Flowers, Good for Containers, Low Maintenance
Zones 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Propagation Division, Seed
Problem Solvers Deer Resistant

Where to Plant Bleeding Heart

This classic old-fashioned garden plant is a natural for beds and borders in USDA Zones 3–9, but it also grows well in containers. Plant bleeding heart in well-draining soil in a location where it receives partial shade or sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon. In damp, cool areas, it can tolerate some full sun.

How and When to Plant Bleeding Heart

While local nurseries may offer container-grown plants that can be planted almost any time, online nurseries usually sell bare-root plants, which must be planted in early spring after the last frost.

A nursery-grown bleeding heart should be set in well-draining soil at the same height as it was in the container. Dig a hole slightly larger than the container plant in well-draining soil and amend it if needed. Backfill with the amended soil and water the plant.

Before planting a bare root bleeding heart, soak the roots for an hour to rehydrate them. Dig a hole in well-draining soil (amended if needed) at least a foot wide and deep, and build a cone of soil in the middle to position the plant at the correct height. Hold the plant in place while slowly refilling the hole, tamping down the soil as you go to prevent air bubbles. Bareroot D. spectabilis should be planted with the crown 2 inches below the soil line, but the crown of smaller bare-root varieties should be 1 inch below the soil line. Fill the hole with the remaining garden soil and water the plant.

Bleeding Heart Care Tips

Light

Bleeding heart thrives in areas with light to full shade. Flowering is best when the plant receives morning sun and afternoon shade.

Soil and Water

The plants are at their best in moist, rich soil, but they won't tolerate a soggy environment. Add compost if there is any doubt. A slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.0-6,5 is ideal, but the plant will tolerate a pH as high as 7.5. Water bleeding heart plants weekly with 1 inch of water. D. spectabilis goes dormant in dry summer heat.

Temperature and Humidity

Bleeding heart plants grow best in temperatures between 55°F and 75°F. If the temperature goes higher than that, increase the watering frequency. Try to maintain humidity at 60 percent or higher year-round.

Fertilizer

When a bleeding heart is planted in soil that is amended yearly, it may not need any additional fertilizer. If the soil is poor, apply an all-purpose, slow-release fertilizer in the spring, following the manufacturer's instructions.

Potting and Repotting Bleeding Heart

When growing a bleeding heart in a container, use a rich potting mix that contains lots of organic material. Include some perlite for good drainage. Keep the potting mix moist but not wet. Bleeding heart is susceptible to root rot when grown in soggy soil.

Pests and Problems

Bleeding heart plants are relatively unattractive to pests, but that doesn't mean you won't occasionally encounter the familiar aphid, mealy bugs, or spider mite, all of which can be controlled with a strong blast of water, insecticidal soap, or neem oil, following the manufacturer's instructions.

How to Propagate Bleeding Heart

Bleeding heart can be propagated through divisions, root cuttings, or seed.

Divide bleeding heart by digging up the plant and using a sharp shovel to cut it in half or thirds, maintaining portions of stems and roots in each division. Replant each division in loose garden soil or a container and keep it moderately moist.

Before taking a root cutting, water the plant well the night before. Lift it from the soil carefully, looking for a thick, healthy-looking root. Examine it for growth nodes (you may have to rinse it with water to see them) and cut a section of the root that includes at least two nodes. Lay the cutting or moist horticultural sand and cover it with an inch of the sand. Keep it moist and in low light. Sprouting occurs in about three weeks.

In the garden, plant seeds in late autumn in moist soil at a depth half as deep as the seed's width. Cover lightly with soil and keep it moist. They won't germinate until the temperature warms in spring.

If planted indoors, wrap the seed pots in clear plastic and put them in the freezer for six weeks. Then, move them to a warm location to germinate. Plants grown from harvested seeds may not be identical to the parent plant.

Types of Bleeding Heart

Bleeding heart is an ephemeral plant—once summer comes along, it goes dormant. So don't panic if your plant dies back rather quickly after it blooms—it's just taking a nap.

While the classic poster child of the Dicentra genus is the old-fashioned bleeding heart, there are other species worth considering, like the fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia). This eastern United States native comes from a shady woodland environment. Similar in many ways to the traditional bleeding heart, fringed bleeding heart comes up in spring and blooms right away. The flowers aren't quite as obviously heart-shaped, but they are no less beautiful. One benefit to the fringed bleeding heart is that it is not an ephemeral, so it stays up in your garden all through the growing season. This also means you may get a few reblooms in the early summer if it stays cool and potentially again in the fall as the summer dies down. The foliage on the fringed bleeding heart is smaller and finer than the old-fashioned type.

The next in this great family is the western bleeding heart, or Dicentra formosa, also sometimes referred to as the Pacific bleeding heart because it hails from the forests of the Pacific coast. Much like its eastern cousin, the western bleeding heart is a woodland perennial that persists throughout the growing season and won't go dormant when adequately watered. Its flowers are extremely similar to the fringed bleeding heart, but the foliage is slightly more fernlike.

Dutchman's breeches (D. cucullaria) share many of the same characteristics as its bleeding heart cousins, but rather than a heart-shaped flower, these woodland natives hold what looks like upside-down pants (or "breeches") above their blue-green foliage. Coming in a little smaller than the bleeding hearts, this variation does well in shady gardens and is a great conversation starter.

'Dutchman's Breeches' Bleeding Heart

‘Dutchman’s Breeches’ Bleeding Heart Dicentra cucullaria
Randall Schieber

Dicentra cucullaria features adorable blooms shaped like upturned breeches in spring. Summer dormant. (Zones 3–9)

'Gold Heart' Bleeding Heart

‘Gold Heart’ Bleeding Heart Dicentra spectabilis
Peter Krumhardt

Dicentra spectabilis 'Gold Heart' offers a dramatic color combination. It pairs chartreuse foliage with pink blooms to stunning effect. (Zones 3-9)

Fringed Bleeding Heart

Fringed Bleeding Heart Dicentra eximia
Matthew Benson Photography

Dicentra eximia has deeply cut, blue-green foliage and pink blooms rising to one foot. It reblooms through summer and fall as long as temperatures are not excessively hot. It is native to the eastern U.S. (Zones 4-8)

White Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart

White Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart Dicentra spectabilis
Peter Krumhardt

Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba' has the same qualities as regular old-fashioned bleeding heart plants, except its flowers are pure white. (Zones 3-9)

'King of Hearts' Bleeding Heart

'King of Hearts' Bleeding Heart Dicentra
Kevin Miyazaki Photography

Dicentra 'King of Hearts' produces a mound of blue-green foliage 6 to 8 inches tall and masses of pink blooms in spring and again in late summer and fall. (Zones 4-8)

Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart

Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart Dicentra spectabilis
Peter Krumhardt

Dicentra spectabilis is a two- to three-foot-tall springtime bloomer with long arching branches of dangling heart-shaped blooms. It usually goes dormant in summer, so pair it with a plant that will fill in its space later in the year. (Zones 3-9)

'Langtrees' Bleeding Heart

'Langtrees' Bleeding Heart Dicentra Formosa
Mike Jensen

Dicentra formosa 'Langtrees' is a white form with ferny blue-green leaves. Like fringed bleeding heart, it blooms nearly continuously if weather conditions remain cool. (Zones 4-8)

Bleeding Heart Companion Plants

Hosta

Hosta
Julie Maris Semarco

This plant was hardly grown 40 years ago, but now it is one of the most commonly grown garden plants. Hosta has earned its spot in the hearts of gardeners—it's among the easiest plants to grow, as long as you have some shade and ample rainfall. Hostas vary from tiny plants suitable for troughs or rock gardens to massive 4-foot clumps with heart-shape leaves almost 2 feet long that can be puckered, wavy-edged, white or green variegated, blue-gray, chartreuse, or emerald-edged; the variations are virtually endless. Hostas in new sizes and new foliage features seem to appear each year. This tough, shade-loving perennial, also known as plantain lily, blooms with white or purplish lavender funnel-shaped or flared flowers in summer. Some are intensely fragrant. Hostas are favorites of slugs and deer.

Heartleaf Brunnera

Heartleaf Brunnera
Peter Krumhardt

In spring, a cloud of tiny blue flowers hovers above heartleaf brunnera's mound of fuzzy heart-shaped leaves. The plant prefers partial shade but can grow in full sun in cool climates, provided it receives adequate moisture. Variegated forms need more shade; in full sun, they're likely to scorch. It is sometimes called Siberian bugloss.

Lungwort

Lungwort
David McDonald

In early spring, the brilliant blue, pink, or white flowers of lungwort bloom despite the coldest chill. The rough basal leaves, spotted or plain, always please and continue to be handsome through the season and into winter. Planted close as a weed-discouraging groundcover or in borders as edgings or bright accent plants, lungworts are workhorses and retain their good looks. The plants prefer high-humus soil that retains moisture. Although lungwort tolerates dry conditions, be alert for mildew.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does a bleeding heart plant live?

    The plant lives about three or four years. However, if it is lifted and divided every three years, and the oldest part of the plant is discarded, the other divisions can be replanted for a new generation of this garden favorite.

  • Do deer eat bleeding heart plants?

    Bleeding heart plants are known to be deer resistant. Deer won't eat them unless there is nothing else to eat. They are also squirrel-resistant and are seldom bothered by rabbits.

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  1. Lamprocapnos spectabilis. North Carolina State University

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