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The beauty of the Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis, zone three to nine) is a classic perennial which is often given for Mother's day because it symbolizes undying love. The dangling red and white hearts begin to appear along arching stems even before the foliage leaves have completely emerged. Bleeding hearts are a graceful woodland plant that has been around for more then a century, with more than 150 species from which to choose. Dicentra comes from Greek words dis meaning "two", and kentros meaning "spurs" referring to the flowers unusual shape. The blossom consists a pillow-like flower with a single drop dangling on the bottom of each bloom. Other references of the bleeding heart are "lady's locket", "lady in a boat" and if you gently pull the two pink tabs apart there is "a lady in a bathtub".

Another special feature of bleeding heart is the fact that it blooms in the spring and continues to bloom for several weeks if the temperatures remain cool. They prefer to light to all shade, and like slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soil. However, if they stand in water their roots will rot. Morning sun is good, but afternoon sun is too hot. Usually old fashion bleeding heart has quit blooming and the entire plant has turned yellow and almost disappeared by mid-summer. Perennials which bloom about the same time as the bleeding heart include pulmonaria, brunnera and bergenia. Because the foliage disappears in summer it is wise to mask the yellowing foliage with later emerging shade-loving plants such as coral bells, foamflower, astilbe, ferns, hosta or monkshood.

Bleeding heart is easy to grow. If you are going to divide them, the early spring when they are just emerging is the best time to move them. They reseed themselves also, and while some people think this is a problem, it is easy to dig up the sprouts when they are four to six inches high and share them with friends or start a new clump for yourself. If you buy a bare root plant, you will note that it is a brittle, fleshy root with several eyes. Soak these overnight in a liquid root stimulator. Plant the next day, by pouring the root solution into the dug hole, and plant the bare root two to three inches (not more) from the soil surface, water well and in a few weeks they will be up and growing. A good mulch for bleeding hearts is pine needles or pine bark. If it becomes dry in the summer, the roots should be kept moist and not be allowed to dry out. In the fall put a couple inches of compost in the area of the plants base. Otherwise they need no fertilizer or special care.

The most popular bleeding heart is the old fashion one with pink and white hearts (Dicentra spectabilis, 24 to 36 inches tall) followed by the one with all white hearts (Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba', 24 to 36 inches tall). Many more cultivars have been developed. Some of the newer ones are smaller such as the dwarf burning hearts which has small deep red hearts and fern like foliage and is only 10 to 12 inches high. These like shade also, but continue to bloom all summer long. There is also a wild flower which is a relative of the bleeding heart called Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) which has white flowers that look like a pair of pants hung out to dry.

Another great shade plant and the Perennial Plant Association's Perennial of the Year for 2012 is Brunnera (zone three to eight) which I mentioned earlier in this article. Brunnera macrophylla, or 'Jack Frost,' has exceptional foliage. The leaves are large and heart-shaped, and although they are green, they have a shimmering silver overlay that allows only green veining to show through so leaves appear silver. They bloom in May with the flowers that are a beautiful shade of blue, appearing above the foliage. The flowers are much like the flowers of forget-me-not. After the plant has bloomed a second set of foliage grows up with larger more mature leaves which can measure four inches across.

This cultivar has been around for eleven years. It should be quite easy to find this spring because of it being perennial of the year. It is relatively expensive because it is propagated vis tissue culture which means it is extra work to propagate, and it can not be grown from seed. Because of the extra work in propagation, they are patented, so other propagation is prohibited. Another cultivar of brunnera that you may find in the shade section of the nursery is 'Looking Glass' which also has a variegated type of leaves similar to 'Jack Frost'.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.