Do You Have a Bleeding Heart?

dicentra-spectabilis-bleeding-heart-dbg-lah-007Has the fat little cherub with the bow and arrow left you lonely this Valentine’s Day? If no one will be sending you roses, why not buy yourself a Bleeding Heart?

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is an old-fashioned perennial aptly named for the row of heart-shaped flowers  that dangle along each wiry flower stalk. Airy leaves in sprays reminiscent of a coarse fern appear in early spring, rising on stems that form a clump that can reach two to three feet, given the right conditions.

Once the flowers fade in late spring, the foliage dries and disappears, leaving little trace of the plant that will reappear next year. While it’s available with white flowers, the more common pink shades seem much more appropriate.

Bleeding hearts look like they belong in a woodland, and that is exactly where they’d like to be situated. The plants are very hardy, thriving up to 10,000 feet elevation (zones 2 and 3) but resenting the heat. Here in Colorado, that means keeping them out of the hottest sun and drying winds. Rather, plant them in well-amended, humus-rich soil in light shade, perhaps under a deciduous tree, or with a northeast exposure. If possible, provide slightly acidic soil. Dicentra also needs to be kept constantly damp (not soggy), so group it with other moisture-loving plants to make the most of your irrigation water.

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In general, it’s best to leave the clumps undisturbed, so pick a spot when planting that allows them plenty of room. If the clumps become so large that you have to do something, they can be divided, but it is a bit tricky. Wait until the plant is done blooming and is dormant. Prepare the soil to receive the cuttings before you begin. Then, dig up the clump, carefully exposing the brittle roots. Gently tease them apart by inserting a couple of spading forks back to back in the middle of the root mass and pulling them in opposite directions. Finally, replant each half quickly so the exposed roots don’t dry out.

If you treat your plants well, they will reward you with plenty of volunteer seedlings. These can be transplanted to suitable spots in your garden or shared with friends. You can also collect the seeds and sow them exactly where you want them to grow.

Bleeding Heart may be just the antidote to the Valentine blues, but be careful when handling the plants. All parts are poisonous, and even touching the leaves and stems can cause a rash. That’s not very romantic!

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