Shade-loving bleeding hearts (Dicentra spp.) grace woodland-inspired gardens with romantic, heart-shaped blossoms and feathery foliage. Depending on variety, they grow from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 9. For many gardeners, the name signifies the Asian native known as old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis, syn. Lamprocapnos spectabilis, USDA zones 2 through 9). Native North American bleeding hearts share similar blossoms in exchange for near-identical conditions and care.
Bleeding hearts flourish in part-shade locations that protect them from hot afternoon sun but provide four to six hours of direct rays each day. Garden settings that replicate the natural woodland homes of North American natives such as the Eastern bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia, USDA zones 3 through 9) and Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa, USDA zones 4 through 8) provide ideal conditions for delicate foliage and delightful blooms. North- and east-facing exposures sheltered from winds work well. Eastern bleeding heart tolerates more shade than old-fashioned and Western bleeding hearts, while Western bleeding heart tolerates more sun than the other two.
Soil and Nutrition
Bleeding hearts prefer loose, well-drained soil rich with organic matter -- think of woodland floors covered with decaying leaves. The plants adapt to various soil types and favor near-neutral to slightly acidic soil pH. For new bleeding hearts, layer 3 to 4 inches of organic compost or decomposed leaves over the area before planting, and work it down into the soil's top 6 inches. For established bleeding hearts, add a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic compost to the garden each spring. This improves soil quality, retains moisture, regulates soil temperatures and provides all the added nutrition that bleeding hearts need.
Bleeding hearts' fleshy, moisture-filled stems underscore their need for water. It extends their blooms and their garden presence. After flowering in spring, old-fashioned bleeding heart goes dormant and disappears for the year, but consistently moist soil prolongs its blooms and delays its departure. Moist, cool soil keeps Eastern bleeding heart in near-continuous blooms from spring through fall; in heat and drier soil, it takes a bloom break midsummer and flowers again in autumn. Western bleeding heart tolerates occasional dry bouts, but steady moisture keeps its spring blooms going until midsummer. Water bleeding hearts as needed to supplement rainfall. Keep soil damp, but never soggy.
Spacing and Companions
Eastern and Western bleeding hearts generally grow 6 to 18 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide. But given the room, their rhizomes slowly spread up to 3 feet. Space the plants 18 to 24 inches apart -- farther if you plan to let them spread. Old-fashioned bleeding heart grows up to 3 feet tall and wide -- plant garden companions that give it room in spring, but fill its empty spot when it goes dormant. Shade-loving hostas (Hosta spp., USDA zones 3 through 9), for example, come into fullness right as old-fashioned bleeding heart retires. Space these garden companions with summer in mind, as though old-fashioned bleeding heart were absent.