For love of bleeding hearts

Old-fashioned bleeding heart                 Greg/Flickr

Old-fashioned bleeding heart                 Greg/Flickr

Bleeding heart. The phrase, sometimes attached to the term "liberal," is often hurled as an epithet. But watch what you say around me. Bleeding heart is one of my favorite plants.

I’m particularly fond of the old-fashioned kind (Dicentra spectabilis), and have dozens of plants out back that are about to break into glorious swags of bloom. It’s amazing how industrious they are once the reddish new foliage pushes up from the moist spring soil.

They grow at an astounding rate, gaining visibly day by day. In scarcely two weeks — or so it seems — they’ve shot up into little bushes, two feet high and wide. Fortuitously, they prepare to put on their display at just about the time the daffodils are fading. In fact, I count on them for distraction when the curtain comes down on the first show of spring, in which daffodils and grape hyacinths play leading roles.

What I like best is this plant’s graceful form. From a central point, its clutch of vigorous shoots arch away like fountain jets. The foliage is finely divided, a pleasing blue-green. And along the stems hang dainty rose-and-white flowers, abundant in number and complex in form.

Dangling by a green "thread," the flowers are rose-red hearts dripping a "tear" of white. Turn them upside-down, and tradition has it you’ll see a lady in a bathtub. Well…maybe. There is what can be seen as a pale white figure rising from something that imagination might cast as an old-fashioned, Napoleonic bathing tub. It’s a stretch, in my opinion, but I do like a flower you can play with.

D. spectabilis also comes in a pure-white form, which is more ethereal, if not, strictly speaking, prettier. I traded a piece of my ‘Caesar’s’ Brother’ Siberian iris for a division of white bleeding heart, and it’s slowly developing into yet another lovely variation on the theme.

Another big bleeding heart boon is that they will bloom in fairly dense shade. Many of mine are growing under a trio of huge Norway spruce; others seem perfectly happy along the margins of my silver maple copse.

One possible drawback is that they will brown and then disappear entirely in the hot, dry weather of mid-summer. This might leave a rather large hole in your planting scheme, if that matters. But I find in shady spots with moist soil, like the beds near my stream, the foliage is more persistent than the books say.

Fringed bleeding heart            Rachel James/Flickr

Fringed bleeding heart            Rachel James/Flickr

Garden books also warn about transplanting this baby, since roots are quite brittle. I haven’t had any problems moving them around, but I wait until they begin to go dormant and take a sizable ball of soil along with the roots.

Bleeding heart associates beautifully with the little blue flowers of spring. Mine grow in a bed of periwinkle (Vinca minor), which is looking uncommonly good this year, carpeting the ground with wide-eyed, sky-blue blossoms.

One of the loveliest combinations I’ve seen is bleeding heart underplanted with Brunnera macrophylla, a perennial spring forget-me-not with sapphire-blue flowers floating above heart-shaped leaves. But although I have woodland conditions that should suit it, I’ve never been able to make this plant happy. Go figure.

The old-fashioned bleeding heart’s cousin, the fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa or eximia), doesn’t speak to me quite so compellingly, but is also a worthy garden subject. Quite different in style, it’s a clump of ferny leaves amid which single stems sit, each with a single, pod-shaped flower.

Another shade-lover, this is one of the bloomingest plants around. Give it a cool, shady spot and enough water, and it will bloom continuously from June to October on a comely 15-inch plant. The hybrid crosses ‘Luxuriant,’ a cherry-pink, and ‘Snowdrift,’ a creamy white, are ones you’ll find in most catalogs offering perennial plants.

While many gardeners lament the shade in their gardens, I just think of the plants you’d have to do without in a yard of unrelieved sun. When I look out the window these mornings, it’s to watch these incredibly lovely plants build to a crescendo of bloom. Ah, yes — be still, my bleeding heart.