Bleeding Heart: Beauty, Deep Emotion

Among the many ephemeral springtime flowers, none is more elegant or unique than Lamprocapnos spectabilis, commonly known as “bleeding heart.” This beloved perennial features fern-like leaves and gracefully arching stems strung with dangling pink heart-shaped flowers from which a single drop of white protrudes.

Bleeding heart was first discovered in Asia by a member of the Royal Horticultural Society and brought to England in 1946. However, there is also a wild bleeding heart species native to North America, fringed bleeding heart.

Bleeding Heart: Beauty, Deep Emotion

Old-fashioned pink bleeding hearts have been in cultivation the longest, and after attempts to hybridize the Asian and North American species failed, it became clear that the two species were not closely related. A new name was in order, which is why sometimes you see bleeding hearts referred to as Dicentra spectabilis and other times as Lamprocapnos spectabilis. L. spectabilis is the old-fashioned bleeding heart, though in older texts you will find them referred to as D. spectabilis — now used only for fringed bleeding hearts.

Bleeding Heart: Beauty, Deep Emotion
Bleeding Hearts in Story & Symbolism
Bleeding Heart: Beauty, Deep Emotion

Bleeding hearts carry different meanings, depending on whom you ask. Often associated with beauty and deep emotion, it sometimes symbolizes lost love or sorrow. This may have something to do with a story that gardeners like to tell their children, deconstructing a bleeding heart blossom to illustrate:

Once there was a man who fell in love with a wealthy lady (hold the bloom upside down, and part the red lobes to show the lady surrounded by her pink skirts) and longed to win her love. First, he gave her a pair of exotic rabbits to keep her company (peel off the outer two petals, placing them on their sides, with the “ears” facing up). She happily accepted the gift, but told him that she did not love him.

Still, he persisted, presenting her with the most beautiful earrings he could afford (take the pair of long, white inner petals and hold them against your ear lobes). The lady accepted the earrings but still declared that her feelings were unchanged. Desperate to change her mind, he offered her luxurious silk slippers (take the inner “drops” and lay them in the palm of your hand). She happily placed them on her feet, but announced that she would never love him.

Heartbroken, the man realized his love was in vain. He pulled a dagger from his belt and plunged it into his own heart (remove the dark green stamen from the center of the flower and using the earrings to form a heart shape, “pierce” the heart with the green spear).

As the man fell to the ground, the lady realized, too late, that she loved him. “My heart is broken!” she cried out, “and will bleed forevermore.” Where his blood fell, the first bleeding heart grew, and her heart still bleeds, to this day.

Bleeding Heart: Beauty, Deep Emotion
Popular L. Spectabilis Varieties
Bleeding Heart: Beauty, Deep Emotion

The native bleeding heart species are pink, but several wonderful cultivars in different colors exist:

Can I Grow Bleeding Hearts Successfully?
Bleeding Heart: Beauty, Deep Emotion

The delicate-looking Lamprocapnos spectabilis is actually a hardy woodland species, and given the right conditions is easy to grow and maintain. Bleeding hearts can be successfully cultivated from seed sown outdoors in the fall, but most gardeners prefer to start them indoors or in cold frames for six to eight weeks before transplanting outdoors. A foolproof method for growing is to buy plants in pots and transfer them into moist soil in a partly shaded spot in fall or spring. Every few years, divide the clumps and plant in other areas of your garden.

Bleeding Heart: Beauty, Deep Emotion

Bleeding hearts make fantastic border plants, but one word of caution is that they go dormant in summer, and may die back to the point that they are difficult to locate. They are best paired with other perennials that will fill in the space they leave during dormancy, and you may want to mark their locations so that you can find them when it’s time to divide clumps.

Size: 2-3 ft (60-90 cm) tall 1-3 ft (30-90 cm) spread

Hardiness: USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9

Light Duration: Full sun, part shade

Soil: Moist, well-drained but consistently damp soil rich with organic matter

Blooming Time: Late spring to early summer