July 29, 2002
Grower's Six Pack:
Dicentras for charm

By: Janet Anderson, JEA Perennials Inc.

“Breathtaking,” “star of the spring garden,” “a sight to behold,” all are apt descriptions for a well grown specimen of Dicentra or Bleeding Heart. There are several species and many cultivars now available, with a few spectacular recent releases that need to be seen to be believed.

     In general, Dicentra are woodland plants preferring a shady moist location with rich humsy soil. They will be content in a sunny location with adequate moisture. Bleeding Hearts are perfect companion plants for Hosta, Pulmonaria, Tiarella, ferns and even Tulips and Narcissus. The classic pendulous, heart-shaped flowers are a common theme across the varieties, elegantly paired with lacy divided foliage in various hues of blue green to silver grey. All are excellent candidates for floral arrangements as both flowers and foliage cut well. Propagation methods vary, with division and tip cuttings being the most prevalent, however tissue culture is gaining in popularity especially for the new introductions.

Dicentra spectabilis
Hardy in USDA Zones 2-9

The old-fashioned Bleeding Heart is familiar and loved by almost everyone. Blooming in May, they are a classic gift for Mother’s Day. The divided foliage forms a clump up to a metre in height with a spread of about 60 cm. Long arching branches emerge from the base carrying strings of drooping hearts. There are few sights to match this in late spring. Perhaps their only downfall is that this species is ephemeral to a greater or lesser extent, depending upon the temperature and moisture levels. As early as late June (hot dry conditions) or as late as early August (cooler moist summer) these plants will have coloured to a clear yellow before going completely dormant. Novice gardeners may view this with panic, assuming their beautiful plant is ill and dying. Reassurance is necessary. Dicentra are vigorous and long lived and will most assuredly return the following spring for an even greater show. In the meantime, some planning is necessary to fill the gap in the border left by our sleeping beauty. Perhaps a large blue Hosta (‘Big Daddy’ or ‘Blue Angel’) planted in front of the Dicentra will be perfect to fill the gap. Just as the Dicentra is waning, the Hosta will reach its potential and ‘voila,’ no spaces to jar the flow of the garden. If we are having an exceptionally cool summer, simply shearing the foliage back after flowering will encourage new growth and occasionally a light sporadic re-blooming later in the season.

Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’
Hardy in USDA Zones 2-9

A companion to the more common variety, D. spectabilis ‘Alba’ has beautiful clear white flowers. Equally as impressive as its more colourful counterpart, ‘Alba’ will light up a shady area as only white flowers can do. Plants tend to be slightly less vigorous so if planting as a group, place the white ones toward the front.

Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’
Hardy in USDA Zones 4-9

This is a truly outstanding recent introduction. Selected by Nori Pope of Hadspen house in England, who has also brought us such notables as Astrantia ‘Hadspen Blood’ and Brunnera ‘Hadspen Cream,’ the plant’s brilliant golden foliage shines like a beacon from its shady location in the garden. Achieving a similar stature to that of the straight species, this plant is, perhaps surprisingly, quite robust and easy to grow. It does need a more sheltered location as it will burn if planted in full sun. Expect similar masses of vibrant pink blooms as the species. It makes a wonderful companion for any of the dark leafed Cimicifuga (Actaea) such as C. ‘Black Negligee’ or C. ‘Hillside Black Beauty.’ It is also stunning in combination with Heuchera ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ or H. ‘Purple Petticoats.’

Dicentra formosa ‘Luxuriant’
Hardy in USDA Zones 2-9

Another old favourite, the Fern Leaf Bleeding Heart is familiar to most as a workhorse. Wonderful lacy green foliage is often mistaken for a fern. The plant forms a compact mound about 30 cm high and across. Unlike its bigger, more ‘spectacular’ cousins, this species does not go dormant in the summer. Preferring to hang around and stay with the party, the foliage looks great until frost. ‘Luxuriant’ can also handle a sunnier and drier location than the species. As an added bonus, masses of cherry red blooms are held erect above the mound of foliage from May through August on an almost continual basis. This is a great plant for commercial landscapes and the mythical “no maintenance” residential garden as it does, in fact, require very little work, while adding a touch of luxury.

Dicentra formosa ‘Margery Fish’
Hardy in USDA Zones 2-9

Selected at the famous Margery Fish Nursery in England, this is a relatively new introduction and until recently not widely available. ‘Margery Fish’ features incredible blue green foliage that leans heavily to the blue side of the palette. Each leaf is deeply incised and very fern-like. Makes a great foil against the solid textural quality of golden leafed Hosta, and combines well with the blue flowers of Pulmonaria. It is a vigorous grower and very floriferous with masses of clear white flowers in spring. Though not by any means tender, ‘Margery Fish’ does require a semi-shaded location and will retain her beautiful blue foliage throughout summer.

Dicentra ‘King of Hearts’
Hardy in USDA Zones 5-9

The most recent addition to the family, this multi-species cross is turning heads and gaining acclaim wherever it is seen. It exhibits a vigorous growth habit with sumptuous lacy grey-blue foliage that forms a 30 cm mound. Covered with masses of large dark rose dangling hearts from spring to fall, this plant just doesn’t know when to stop. This king will be the reigning monarch of the shady garden for the foreseeable future.