Living and Lifestyle

Gardening: Bleeding hearts come in many varieties

The white bleeding heart is a colour-echo of the green and white variegated hosta (Sara Williams photo)

Bleeding heart is a lovely woodland plant that has graced prairie gardens since the turn of the last century. The botanical name, Dicentra, is from two Greek words describing the flower: dis (meaning “two”) and kenton, meaning “spurs”. The common name, originating from Chinese folklore, is due to the resemblance of “a drop of blood” formed below the inflated and pouched heart-shaped flower spurs. The flowers are held on graceful arching stems similar to those of Solomon’s seal. It’s also called Dutchman’s breaches, lady’s locket and lady in a bath.

Bleeding heart is best planted in a well drained but humus-rich soil in shade or partial shade. It requires even moisture but does not do well in heavy soils or wet sites. Do not move or disturb them unnecessarily as their roots are brittle. Bleeding heart can be propagated by careful division in early spring or by taking 3-inch long root cuttings.

The genus consists of about 20 species, native to North America and Asia. Only three of these are considered reliably hardy (Zone 3) and are readily available on the Canadian prairies: Dicentra spectabilis, D. exima, and D. formosa.

The common or showy bleeding heart (D. spectabilis) is the showiest of the three with the largest flowers.  Native to Siberia, China, Korea, Japan and Manchuria, it was introduced to England by Robert Fortune in 1846. He was the first plant explorer to make extensive use of the terrarium-like Wardian cases when shipping plants home. Only 35 of his 250 plants died on the long voyage from Shanghai.

About 30 inches tall and wide, the individual flowers are deep pink and white and about one inch in diameter. The light green foliage is larger than that of the other species but not as deeply cut. After blooming, the foliage often yellows and dies back, especially if summers are hot and dry. Fill in with annuals or let adjacent plants encroach the space.

Among the cultivars are: ‘Alba’ with white heart-shaped flowers but otherwise similar; ‘Gold Heart’ with yellow foliage and a bit smaller in size; and ‘Valentine’ with red and white flowers and grey-green foliage.

The fern-leafed or fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra exima) is native to eastern North America. The Latin name of the species, exima, means “distinguished.” Only 18 inches in height, the deep rose pink to pink flowers hang from arching, leafless flower stalks. Longer blooming, it has finely dissected grey-green foliage and does not go summer-dormant. It was introduced to Britain in 1812 by John Lyon. A Scot who had been previously employed as a gardener by William Hamilton of Philadelphia, an eminent American botanist and plant collector, Lyon collected in eastern North America.

Among the cultivars of the fringed bleeding heart are: ‘Alba’ with creamy white flowers and light green leaves; ‘Luxuriant’ with cherry red flowers larger than those of the species; ‘Adrian Bloom’ with crimson flowers with grey foliage; and ‘Bountiful’ with rich red flowers.

The western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) is native to western North America from California to British Columbia but otherwise similar to D. exima, about 45cm tall with ferny foliage. The species name, formosa, has nothing to do with the island of the same name, but both mean “beautiful”. The cultivar ‘Alba’ is similar with white flowers.

It was introduced to Europe by a Scottish surgeon, Archibald Menzies who collected seeds in Nootka Sound in 1792 that he gave to the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. In 1835, it made its way back to North America where it was sold in Boston. D. exima and D. formosa hybridize readily and are similar in that neither go dormant in late summer and both have a longer flowering period than D. spectabilis.

Sara is the author of numerous gardening books, among them the revised Creating the Prairie Xeriscape. And with Hugh Skinner: Gardening Naturally – A Chemical-free Handbook for the Prairies; Trees and Shrubs for the Prairies, and Groundcovers & Vines for the Prairies. Expect Fruit for Northern Gardens with Bob Bors in November, 2017.

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; http://www.saskperennial.ca; hortscene@yahoo.com; http://www.facebook.com/saskperennial). Check out our Bulletin Board or Calendar for upcoming garden information sessions, workshops, tours and other events. Got growing questions? Gardenline is here to help! Email gardenline@usask.ca with your questions or call Helen at 306-966

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