Fantastic Design Plant: Western Bleeding Heart

There’s something magical about taking a woodland walk, particularly in spring. It is the time to rediscover the indigenous paintings of our landscape.

Late March finds Western strain heart pushing up through the leaf litter in my woodland, increasing in amount each year even though our rambunctious dog scampering over them. The plants form a rug of soft fern-like foliage wherever dappled light emitting the canopy; they thrive in the fertile, moisture-retentive land of the forest ground. Even with no delicate pink flowers, these perennials would be worthy of inclusion in a shady garden.

Don’t be deceived by looks, by the way — these are much tougher than they look.

Botanical name: Dicentra formosa
Common names: Western Illness heart, Pacific bleeding heart
USDA zones: 4 to 8 (find your zone)
Origin: Native to moist woodlands of the Pacific Northwest, from British Columbia to California
Water condition: Prefers moist, fertile soil but is surprisingly drought tolerant in summertime
Light requirement: Dappled light; morning sun with afternoon shade
Mature size: 12 inches tall and wide (though it will disperse)
Benefits and tolerances: Hummingbirds enjoy it deer leave it alone (two great reasons to include it in your garden).
Seasonal interest: Flowers in late spring
When to plant: As the foliage begins to go dormant in late summer or when new shoots Start to appear in early spring

Photo by Walter Siegmund

Distinguishing traits. Delicate blue-green ferny leaves creates a soft carpet beneath the arching stems of dusky-pink heart-shaped flowers.

Despite appearances, this indigenous bleeding heart is demanding.

Photo by Walter Siegmund

Photo by Walter Siegmund

Le jardinet

The best way to use it. Western bleeding heartis ideal for the dappled shade of a woodland garden, possibly clustered around the base of a mossy tree stump or boulder. Or plant it en masse to form a ground cover.

This spring perennial also appears right at home along shady stream banks, providing the soil doesn’t become saturated.

Planting notes. Western bleeding heart spreads readily by rhizomes and seeds, so you can set plants some space apart and quickly become good coverage. To propagate, divide the plants in early spring as the shoots emerge but before flowering.

Le jardinet

Ornamental species and cultivars. The most popular of them is Dicentra spectabilis, shown here. It is a larger perennial, growing to 3 feet by 3 feet, and its flowers are a bright pink.

There’s also a white-flowered cultivar (D. spectabilis ‘Alba’) and a golden-leaved one with pink flowers called ‘Gold Heart’ (D. spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’).

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