Fall in love with bleeding hearts
by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
February is the month of love, often symbolized by red hearts. In the garden, though, love is much more dramatic and represented by bleeding hearts, a beautiful perennial that thrives in the Midwestern shade garden.
My very first Indianapolis garden included the old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis). This import from Asia is one of my favorites and is still with me after a move. For six to eight weeks in late spring and early summer, pink, heart-shaped flowers dangle from softly arching branches above gray-green foliage. The shape of the flower suggests the heart is bleeding. The branches make lovely cut flowers. There's also a white version called "Alba."
At maturity, the old-fashioned bleeding heart will be about 3 feet tall and wide. This plant usually goes dormant in summer heat. Cut back to the ground when it looks bad.
Another type, called Eastern fringed bleeding heart (D. eximia), is native from Minnesota to Ohio as a woodland plant. Although not immune to summer dormancy, this plant with ferny gray-green foliage is more likely to bloom most of the season, especially if given adequate water. It's about 12 inches tall and wide, and usually lives for two or three years. It self sows a bit, so there are usually new plants to move about. The Pacific bleeding heart (D. formosa), native to Western states, is about the same size. Plant breeders have used these and other bleeding heart species to create garden worthy perennials.
The first one to gain fame was "Luxuriant," a cross between the Eastern and Western bleeding heart. "It was a little more superior in that it blooms throughout the spring, summer and fall in the Midwest," says Jeanette Goodlow, perennial manager at highly rated The Growing Place in Naperville, Ill. Goodlow notes that it's easy to overwater them, which causes the plants to rot. They can go a little dry with the most important requirement being well-drained soil.
There are newer ones, though, that are outstanding. "Burning Hearts" has red showy flowers. It gets about 12 to 15 inches tall and wide, and blooms from May into September. Others include "Candy Hearts" and "Ivory Hearts." "King of Hearts," which gets 10 to 12 inches tall and wide, has reddish-pink flowers in tight clusters above the familiar gray-green ferny foliage.
"Gold Heart" has gold foliage and red flowers, and has impressed consumers with its showiness and staying power. "It stays up all summer and looks stunning with dark-leafed plants such as 'Black Negligee' bugbane," Goodlow says.
Bleeding hearts do best in part shade to full shade with well-drained, moist soil, and in rock gardens. These perennials blend nicely with Hosta, hellebores (Helleborus), lungwort (Pulmonaria) and other bold-leafed, shade-loving plants. The shorter bleeding hearts also work nicely as a ferny groundcover under shrubs and trees.
Sometimes known as the Hoosier Gardener, Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp lives in Indianapolis where she manages perennials and woody plants for a large, highly rated independent garden center. A freelance writer, her work appears in many publications, including The American Gardener and Garden Gate. Sharp also speaks about gardening throughout the Midwest and is a director of the Garden Writers Association.