Meet the Natives: Bleeding Heart

THE NATIVE BLEEDING HEARTS ARE UNASSUMING COUNTRY COUSINS to the common garden bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis. The latter, which is native to Eastern Asia, grows far larger than the natives and has been popular with gardeners going back to the mid-19th century in Europe and for hundreds of years in China and Japan.

The smaller, native Dicentras are equally charming once you get to know them. These members of the Fumitory family (which also includes Corydalis spp.) are low growing, with delicate, fernlike foliage and a tendency to naturalize. The petals fuse into interesting shapes, typically pink (sometimes white) hearts with the stamens forming a teardrop beneath--hence the common name bleeding heart. They usually flower in spring and tend to be popular with bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. In my experience the Dicentras also get along famously with other plants; see how, in the photo at top, the little bleeding heart is cozying right up to the native strawberry, with its grey-green ferny foliage setting off the brighter green and solid leaves of the Fragaria.

The photo at top mostly likely shows D. formosa, or Pacific bleeding heart. This plant was given to me by a neighbor, who dug it up in a relative's garden. If it's what I think it is, it's native to the West Coast, and has probably reached me here in the Northeast by the grace of many generations of gardeners who have passed it from one garden to another all across the continent.

Technically, this plant isn't native here. But I'm willing to overlook that because it's not particularly invasive and I have such pleasant memories of growing it in the West. The photo to the left shows a scene from a garden I designed and installed with my friend Brett Johnson; we called this area the "hummingbird glen" because we filled it with plants that appeal to hummingbirds, including D. formosa. The greenery immediately surrounding the bench consists almost entirely of a combination of native ferns with native bleeding hearts. (A photo of this same scene appeared with this article in the Seattle Times.) D. formosa has become quite popular in the nursery trade, and several cultivars are available. "Alba" has pure white flowers, and there are also several that have dark reddish pink blooms.

Warning: According to the Native Plant Information Network at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, all parts of this plant are toxic. The website states that the plant causes minor skin irritation when touched, but considerably more severe symptoms with greater exposure. Now, I've worked with this plant for years and have never noticed any symptoms whatever. But proceed with caution.

The photo at the top of this entry also could be D. canadensis, which possesses the oddball common name of "squirrel corn," presumably because of the yellow, pealike, tuberous roots. This plant has white to pale pink flowers and is native in Ontario and Quebec in Canada and in the United States from Maine to Virginia and as far west as Wisconsin. It is also said to be fragrant (which is one of the reasons why I think the plant in my garden must be D. formosa).

Another of the great native bleeding hearts--and a slightly unusual one--is D. cucullaria, which has white and yellow blooms that are shaped not like hearts but like upside-down pantaloons. Hence the common name, Dutchman's breeches. Apparently, the flowers of D. cucullaria are quite variable, however, and so the plant can often look a lot like D. canadensis, to which it is very closely related. However, D. cucullaria is not fragrant. This is the only Dicentra that is actually native where I live (insert sad face here), being native to the Maritimes as well as Ontario and Quebec in Canada, and all the way from Maine to Washington down to Tennessee in the United States. Western populations of the plant have apparently been separated from the eastern populations for at least 1,000 years, so there are physical differences between plants from the West Coast and those from the East, and some botanists regard them as different species.

Finally, D. eximia aka wild bleeding heart or plumy bleeding heart or eastern bleeding heart has small, deep pink heart-shaped flowers and is found "along the Appalachians from North Carolina and Tennessee to Maryland and Pennsylvania" according to the Flora of North America. This reference goes on to report that wild bleeding heart is frequently used in gardens and sometimes escapes outside the area to which it is native, but evidently has not become truly naturalized beyond it. Patented hybrids of D. eximia and D. formosa can be found in nurseries. The Native Plant Information Network at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center praises it as a garden plant because it has a long blooming season but warns that it can spread so profusely that it will smother other plants.

Give the Dicentras part shade (high shade or dappled shade is ideal), rich soil, and moisture, and then stand back and be prepared to watch them spread. You can usually extend the bloom time by providing supplemental water, but this is not necessary as the plants will simply go dormant if not watered.

Native Americans used this plant medicinally.


Sarah O. said...

It's nice to learn which bleeding hearts are native to NA. We have D. formosa in a western/southwestern exposure along the front of our house. It spreads and blooms until early July, dies back until late August (oddly, I never notice it turn yellow or wither, it just seems to fade away to a more manageable size), and then puts in another reappearance as the days cool. It actually seems like the heat and dryness alongside the house encourage it to spread.

I particularly like the ease of transplanting bleeding hearts. They aren't too fussy about where they are put.

Wild Flora said...

Thanks for stopping by, Sarah. It's interesting to hear that D. formosa is actually doing well in a hot, dry spot. What a tough little plant this is.

Prickly said...

i'm pretty certain that the photo at the top isn't D. formosa. i see it growing in the woods all the time and it looks a bit different from the picture. ps: your blog rocks!

Wild Flora said...

Hi Prickly,
I'm pretty sure it is D. formosa. There can be considerable genetic variation within a species, so it's entirely possible for the D. formosa growing in the woods near you to look a bit different from the D. formosa growing in my front yard, and still be the same species. Thanks for the compliment!