Bleeding Hearts: Floral Hearts Celebrating Spring

Bleeding hearts are elegant perennials that grace many gardens and landscapes in Iowa.  Their distinctive spring flowers are often complimented by finely-divided or dissected foliage.  The unique heart-like flowers are created by two-spurred petals with a protruding inner petal that creates the “drop of blood” common for bleeding hearts. 

There are approximately 20 different species of bleeding hearts that are native to moist woodland areas in Asia and North America.  Several of these species perform well in Iowa landscapes.  Their delicate flowers and foliage are nice textural compliments to other shade-loving perennials like hosta and coral bells.  Their delicate and graceful demeanor may be misleading, as these plants are surprisingly resilient and easy to grow.

Growing Conditions
Bleeding hearts prefer partial shade with fertile, moist, well-drained soils, but they are also tolerant of other conditions.  Sites that receive early morning or late day sun are generally good locations for bleeding hearts.  Plants can even be successfully grown in areas that receive mid-day sun if the soil is consistently moist.  Plants in full shade will have fewer blooms.   Bleeding hearts do not like dry soils, especially in the heat of the summer.  They are also susceptible to root rots in soggy or wet soils.  Soils that remain wet over winter are especially problematic.    

Species
Species vary in height and bloom time.  A few species are considered ephemeral.  This means the leaves yellow and the above ground portion of the plant dies back in mid to late-summer.  Dormant does not mean dead.   Ephemeral plant species choose to avoid the heat of summer by persisting below ground – sometimes for nine months.  When spring arrives, they re-appear and celebrate the season with prolific blooms.  Having ephemerals in the landscape does mean the gardener needs to plan for an empty or open space in summer and fall.

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is the first of the bleeding hearts to bloom in spring.  Blooms are creamy white with ribbons of pale yellow.  Flowers resemble white pantaloons hung upside down on arching lines, hence the name Dutchman’s breeches.   Plants typically bloom in April in Iowa.  The foliage is finely dissected and gray-green.  Plants are small -- rarely reaching more than a foot tall with blooms.  This species is native to Iowa woodlands and ephemeral.  Woodland areas covered in Dutchman’s breeches are a sight to behold!

A picture illustrating Dutchman's Breeches, Bleeding Hearts
A picture illustrating Dutchman's Breeches, Bleeding Hearts. Cindy Haynes

Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) is another Midwestern native bleeding heart. It is similar in size and foliage to Dutchman’s breeches.  Flowers are white, narrow, and distinctly heart-shaped.   Squirrel corn typically blooms a week or two later than Dutchman’s breeches and is not as common in Iowa woodlands.  It is called squirrel corn because the tiny tubers are yellow and resemble corn seed.  This species is also ephemeral, lasting only a few months.

Fringed Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia) starts blooming after Dutchman’s breeches have finished in spring.  But this bleeding heart often continues to bloom throughout the growing season.  Pale pink, white, purplish-pink, and reddish, narrow, heart-shaped flowers appear on leafless stems above the foliage from spring to fall - as long as the weather remains cool.  The foliage is similar to Dutchman’s breeches - finely dissected, gray-green – but persists all summer.

A picture illustrating Fringed Bleeding Hearts
A picture illustrating Fringed Bleeding Hearts

Western or Fernleaf Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa) closely resembles the fringed bleeding heart.  This species is native to damp woods in the Pacific Northwest and Canada.  Plants grow to 18-20 inches tall and spread slowly in ideal sites.  This plant performs well in well-drained, rocky soils.  Blooms appear throughout the spring, summer, and fall in cool climates.  In Iowa, blooming temporarily stops during the heat of the summer.  Many newer cultivars are hybrids of D. formosa and D. eximia.

A picture illustrating Western/Fernleaf Bleeding Heart
A picture illustrating Western/Fernleaf Bleeding Heart. Cindy Haynes

Old-fashioned Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) is the largest and showiest of the bleeding hearts.  Plants grow to 24-36 inches tall and equally as wide.  This species is a favorite in gardens throughout the United States, even though the species is native to Japan.  Strings of a dozen or more showy flowers appear in spring on long arching leafless stems that are often more than a foot long.  The spurred petals are often pink with a protruding inner petal of white.  This contrast makes these flowers stand out in the landscape. Foliage is often bright green or yellow, depending on cultivar, and less finely dissected compared to other species.   Plants are frequently ephemeral, lasting only until July in Iowa landscapes, depending on weather and site conditions.

A picture illustrating Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts
A picture illustrating Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts. Cindy Haynes

Local garden centers should have several cultivars of old-fashioned bleeding heart and several hybrid cultivars of fernleaf and fringed bleeding heart available.  Native species may only be available in spring and should be nursery propagated, not wild-collected.

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