An Old-Fashioned Heart That Will Flower For You

For fanciful blooms and attractive foliage, bleeding hearts are hard to beat. An easy to grow perennial, they ask no special care in return for their heart-shaped flowers. All they need is partial shade and moist, humus-rich, well-drained soil.

The two small spurs at the tip of each heart, the "drops of blood," are what give this flower its common name. Dicentra, the genus name, is of Greek origin and means twice spurred.

Three kinds of Dicentra are readily available: the common or old-fashioned bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis; Dicentra eximia, a fringed variety, and Dicentra formosa, the western bleeding heart.

The common bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis, has the showiest flowers of the genus. Native to Japan, Korea and China, the common bleeding heart was introduced to Western gardeners in 1846 when Robert Fortune collected specimens from the island of Chusan. Fortune was one of the botanical explorers hired by England's Horticultural Society to collect plants from foreign countries. Dicentra spectabilis quickly became a favorite in Victorian gardens.

Today's gardeners are still intrigued by the flowers, which look like puffy little hearts or lockets. The most widely grown variety has rosy-red hearts with white tips; a more unusual one has pure white hearts. The flowers, which are produced in late spring, dangle from the undersides of long, arching, leafless stems.

Their unique shape has inspired many imaginative nicknames including lady's eardrop, lady's locket and lyre flower. If you turn a mature flower upside down and pull the two outer petals apart (opening the flower), you can see the shape that led to the nicknames lady-in-a-boat and lady-in-a-bath.

The plant sends up new shoots in early spring and eventually reaches 2 or 3 feet in height and width before flowering and dying down in mid- to late summer. The more sun and heat it receives, the earlier it goes dormant. This common variety lasts longer if it is planted in light shade.

You can cut the foliage to the ground when it begins to turn brown. Compensate for the summer dormancy period by planting your bleeding heart next to other perennials that grow to cover the vacant spot later in the season. Or, install an annual plant when the foliage begins to look shabby.

Local nurseries usually start selling dormant Dicentra spectabilis roots in winter and potted plants in late winter or early spring. Plant dormant roots as early as you can get them.

The fringed bleeding heart, Dicentra eximia, is a native of the northeastern U.S. that deserves to be better known. Although its flowers are not as showy as the common bleeding heart, its blooming period is much longer and its beautiful fern-like blue-green leaves do not go dormant until winter. The leaves form clumps about 12 to 18 inches high and wide, are more dissected than those of the common bleeding heart.

The rosy-colored flowers of the fringed bleeding heart have their own subtle charm. Instead of producing arching stems lined with hearts, this perennial carries clusters of hearts held above its foliage on upright stems. The flowers are borne nearly continuously from spring through fall, only slowing down during extremely hot weather.

The Western bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa, is similar to the fringed bleeding heart except it spreads more aggressively. It can be used as a ground cover in shady areas, or it can be confined by dividing it regularly. This plant is native to woodlands along the Pacific Coast.

Many varieties and hybrids of Dicentra eximia and Dicentra formosa are available. Most have rose or pinkish-red flowers, although there are some pure whites. The hybrid called "Luxuriant" has rosy-red flowers and is recommended for climates with warm, dry summers or mild winters.

You can buy the fringed and Western bleeding hearts in spring. Be aware that Dicentra eximia is sometimes called eastern or ever blooming bleeding heart and Dicentra formosa is sometimes called Pacific bleeding heart.

The only problem you are likely to have with these plants is root rot if your soil is not well-drained. You can probably avoid root rot if you improve your soil. Even if you do lose a bleeding heart over a wet winter, it's worth replacing the plant the next spring to enjoy another long season of rosy flowers and fern-like foliage.

Bleeding hearts can be grown in USDA climate zones four through nine. They tend to be shorter-lived in areas with very mild winters and bloom longest in regions with moderate summer temperatures. --------------------------------------------------------------- SOURCES

Most nurseries carry the common bleeding heart, and the good ones will usually carry some form of fringed variety. Nurseries that specialize in Pacific Coast natives often carry the Western bleeding heart. Here are some mail-order sources.

-- Forestfarm, 900 Tethrow Road, Williams, OR 97544-9599, (503) 846-6963.

-- Lamb Nurseries, 101 E. Sharp Ave., Spokane, WA 99202, (509)-328-7956.

-- Park Seed Co., Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, SC, 29647-0001, 1-800-845-3369.

-- Wayside Gardens, 1 Garden Lane, Hodges, SC 29695-0001, 1-800-845-1124.