Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

All for a ‘bleeding heart’! by Gill Heavens

Most gardeners know them as ‘Bleeding Hearts’ but dicentra are wonderful oddly shaped, locket style flowers with finely divided leaves which are just spectacular.

We have a problem.  I am supposed to be writing about dicentra, the Bleeding Hearts, but the botanists have had another shuffle and a couple have been renamed.  In fact this genus now only contains eight species.  

Has this put me off?  

Of course not!  I shall include them anyway.  So I will continue unabashed and undaunted.  
Dicentra, and “those formally known as”, are members of the poppy family, Papaveraceae, and are closely related to both corydalis and fumaria.   The name Dicentra is derived from Greek, meaning ‘two spurs’ alluding to the distinctive flower form.  These charming locket-shaped flowers have given rise to a plethora of descriptive common names.  

As well as Bleeding Heart they include Lady in the Bath, Lyre Flower and, my favourite and perhaps the most puzzling, Venus’ Car.   They are herbaceous perennials with many of the species flowering from spring to early summer.  In the wild they are inhabitants of deciduous woodland where they enjoy part shade and a moist root run.  

First let us consider Dicentra spectabilis, now Lamprocapnos spectabilis.  The Asian Bleeding Heart comes from Siberia, Japan, Korea and North China and is perhaps the most familiar to us.  It was first introduced into this country in 1816, got lost somewhere along the way, and was later reintroduced by Robert Fortune in 1847.  Unlike some of its relatives it does not send out invading runners, instead creating substantial, but well behaved, clumps. 

Dicentra formosa Bacchanal

It can reach one metre in height and has large pink heart-shaped flowers with white inner petals on lax stems.   There are many cultivars available which include the pure white blooms of ‘Alba’, ‘Gold Heart’ with its golden foliage and ‘Valentine’ with red and white flowers.  Spectabilis means spectacular, which indeed they are! 

Less common is Dicentra cucullaria, meaning hood-like, which has been cultivated in this country since 1731 when it was donated to the Chelsea Physic Garden.  It is endemic to the North East USA, with a small, isolated, population in the North Eastern states.  Native Americans used it as a blood purifier and to alleviate skin conditions. 

Perversely, it may cause dermatitis in the sensitive.  The foliage is blue green and deeply dissected.  In spring it produces yellow tipped, white flowers with long, narrow spurs, hence the amusing common name of Dutchman’s Breeches.  For something a little different, there is a pale pink cultivar called ‘Pittsburg’.

Closely related to D. cucullaria is Dicentra canadensis, an extremely graceful plant which can reach 30cm in height.  Known commonly as Squirrel Corn, due to the appearance of its bulbils, it has ivory flowers which have the added bonus of fragrance.   Another North American native, it hales from Eastern Canada and the East USA, extending as far south as Missouri.  Like many of the Bleeding Hearts, it dies down completely in summer.  This is known as being Spring Ephemeral, a delightful expression.

dactylicapnos scandens

From the other coast of the USA comes Dicentra formosa, formosa meaning beautiful. This lovely plant was first grown in the UK in 1796 and is known as the Western or Pacific Bleeding Heart.  The delicate pink flowers are held on branching stems up to 50cm high.  This species is ideal for ground cover as it holds its leaves long into summer and is an elegant coloniser.  After a peak of flowering in spring it will offer up the occasional bloom until autumn.  There are two outstanding cultivars, one is Dicentra formosa ‘Bacchanal’ with its deep, dark maroon flowers, the other the white flowered Dicentra formosa ‘Langtrees’.  

Lastly we have Dicentra scandens, renamed Dactylicapnos scandens. Although a truly magnificent sight to see in full bloom, this chap seems to have gone out of its way to be different.  Unlike the others, its primary flowering time is summer.  It is a vigorous climber which can reach 4m and the flowers are bright yellow!   I have considered all the evidence and in this instance I can quite understand why it has been thrown out of the club.  However, I would have preferred something a little easier to pronounce!  

The dicentra have a wonderful secret.  Before we go further, I must warn you that we are going to get rather technical, so you had better pay attention.  You will be tested later.  Bleeding Heart seed is dispersed by ants.  Dicentra cucullariaThis process is called myrmecochory.  The ants do not do this for love or money, but for food.  Each seed has a fleshy (and delicious) organ attached called an elaiosome.  Once the seed has been transported back to the nest the ants tuck in, not harming the seed, which remains in the nest to germinate in an enriched environment.  Now I call that clever!

If you wish to propagate dicentra, and you do not have your own highly trained ants, then it is best to divide the plants in spring.  They can also be easily grown from seed.  I do not recommend that you eat the elaiosome first! They have shallow roots so dry out easily, especially in their dormant period.  An annual mulch of organic matter will help prevent this.  

Whatever you wish to call them, old name, new name or common name, these are splendid plants for the garden. Describing Lamprocapnos spectabilis (Dicentra spectabilis) in her spring garden, Gertrude Jekyll wrote: “Its graceful growth arching out over the lower stature of pink tulips and harmonising charmingly with the pinkish-green of the tree peonies just behind.”  

When the first searching hands of fern-like foliage break the soil, you can be confident that spring is well and truly on the way.  

And you are in for a treat!


Gertrude Jekyll’s Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden  First published 1908 

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