Sandy’s Garden ... Bleeding Hearts

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

The guest speaker at a recent meeting of Polmont Horticultural Society spoke about the plants of Japan.

He made particular reference to the variety of alpines … rock plants … to be found there; and one which was mentioned several times in the course of his talk was Dicentra, a plant with which we are familiar right here in central Scotland, although we are not familiar with all of the varieties of this showy herbaceous plant. In actual solid fact, the flower which we call Dicentra has recently been reclassified by botanical experts as belonging to the genus … the family … Lamprocapnos, although the specific name … the equivalent of the plant’s forename, or Christian name … spectabilis, meaning ‘spectacular’ … is given to both; and the name by which it used to be universally known … Dicentra spectabilis … is still recognised as a synonym for Lamprocapnos spectabilis.

But perhaps I am exaggerating when I say that the flower was universally known as Dicentra spectabilis; I rather think that most gardeners call it … and have always called it … ‘bleeding hearts.’ Whatever, the plant is described as ‘a herbaceous perennial forming a mound of divided, mid-green foliage with heart-shaped, rose-red and white flowers hang from arching stems.’ So now, gentle reader, you know how Dicentra spectabilis came by its common name. And what brought this plant sharply into focus in my mind during the talk was that it appeared in my garden, unbidden, last summer; and I know not whence it came, for I have not been aware of seeing it elsewhere in my neck of the woods. But, since Kenneth Cox and Raoul Curtis-Machen write, in their splendid book Garden Plants for Scotland, first published by Frances Lincoln Ltd. in 2008, that, ‘these very tough deciduous woodlanders from North America are ideally suited to Scottish gardens,’ I can only suppose that it came from a cutting from a nearby garden carried here by the wind or a passing train, for the plants are usually propagated from root cuttings.

A very popular plant which has been known in Scotland for many years, bleeding hearts produce bright-pink flowers on arching stems from late spring until midsummer. The plant itself forms a bushy mound of leaves which look vaguely like ferns, and should, ideally, be cut back to no more than 6 to 8 inches above the ground after the flowers have died back to encourage new foliage to appear. And don’t despair if, after midsummer, the plant seems to die whether it has been pruned or left alone. This is entirely natural and the gardener can expect it to reappear the following spring, for bleeding hearts are perennial and can be expected to survive pretty well everything that a Scottish winter can throw at them. They are happiest in partial shade but will grow in almost any type of soil, be it sandy, normal or heavy, although they prefer some moistness in the soil and won’t do well in really free-draining soil which has any tendency to dry out … if that can be imagined in the contemporary Scottish climate!

Bleeding hearts attract butterflies and have a distinct advantage for rural gardeners, for they are resistant to the depredations of both rabbits and deer. In point of fact, foliage-eating wildlife does well to shun them, for every part of the plant causes severe stomach pains if eaten; and gardeners are warned that the foliage may aggravate skin allergies. And there is one further characteristic which is known to amuse children; the flowers of Dicentra spectabilis resemble bleeding hearts when they are seen in their normal drooping position: but turn the flowers upside-down and one can see a naked lady about to take her bath!