The focus of this week’s article on plants that like to live in the shady part of your garden is the old-fashioned Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis). Delicate heart-shaped flowers with a central tear-drop petal dangle from arching stems above bright green foliage. Turn one upside-down to see the head and shoulders of the “Lady in the Bathtub,” it’s playful nickname. A perennial that is found naturally in woodlands or their edges, it blooms from early spring to mid-summer. The common variety has bright green leaves and pink flowers, but you also may enjoy the white flowers of the Alba, the yellow-gold foliage and pink flowers of the Gold Heart or the scarlet flowers of the Valentine. All varieties make a charming addition to a spring bouquet.
Bleeding Heart can be started from seed, but it’s seeds are difficult to germinate and the seedlings do not transplant well. It is easier to buy a plant in the early spring at a local garden center. It does very well in gardens that are shade or partly shade (fewer than four hours of sun a day) and has a hardiness zone of 3-9, making it a perfect plant for Oceana County. It prefers soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0 that is moist (but not wet) and rich in organic matter. Soil that is too alkaline will cause yellowing of foliage. Fertilize with a sprinkling of 10-10-10 fertilizer or a top dressing of garden compost or your choice of organic fertilizer. Adding a 2 inch layer of mulch will help conserve moisture and prolong blooming time. It may grow up to three feet high and just as wide. Bleeding Heart can be propagated by dividing the plant when fresh growth is visible in the spring, or in the fall when it’s dormant. Be sure to water new divisions regularly. If it’s especially happy, it may surprise you by self-sowing! I have several of the Alba variety scattered around my garden sown from my one and only purchased plant.
Given the right conditions Bleeding Heart will come back year after year in the early spring, then going dormant in early to mid summer. When done blooming, the leaves and stems start sloughing off their old foliage and hibernate underground. To prevent a big empty space in your garden, camouflage with companion plants like large-leaf Hostas, Ferns, Astilbe or other shade-lovers.
Bleeding Heart is considered deer and rabbit resistant. Although generally insect and disease resistant, you may find the rare aphid infestation. Because it is attractive to butterflies, do take care in what insecticide you choose to remove any pests. Fungal diseases, such as fusarium (root) or verticillium (stem) wilt are also rare, but should you see evidence of such, dig up the plant and dispose of it in a plastic bag in the trash. Don’t ruin your compost with diseased plants! It is recommended to avoid replanting in that area for a year. A final word of caution, enjoy Bleeding Heart for it looks only. All parts of this plant are toxic to dogs, cats, humans, horses and livestock unfortunate enough to eat it. If you suspect ingestion of any part of this plant, get help from a doctor or veterinarian immediately. It is best cultivated out-of-doors and out of reach from those who might be tempted to taste a sample.
Bleeding Heart is an easy-to-grow spring bloomer that loves to live on the shady side of your garden! I do hope you give it a try. The next article about shade-loving perennials will showcase Brunnera (Siberian Bugloss), a low-growing plant with variegated heart-shaped leaves and sprays of dainty blue flowers.