Monday, July 22, 2024

How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Pacific Bleeding Heart

Some plants wow growers with their hardiness, and others with their ornamental attributes. Very rarely does a plant come along that exemplifies both. Pacific bleeding heart does, and it is as hardy as it is beautiful.

Scientifically Dicentra formosa, this shade-loving perennial spreads through rhizomes and seeds to slowly blanket an area. Plant one this year, and you’ll have bunches of pendulous heart-shaped flowers each spring. This plant grows foliage that is as ornamental as the flowers, and they delicately divide into fern-like fronds.

This native thrives in the Pacific Northwest but grows successfully throughout the U.S. with the proper care and maintenance. Follow this simple care guide and learn all you need to know to grow Pacific bleeding heart.

A Pacific bleeding heart plant, its lush green leaves gracefully framing purple flowers, basks serenely in the warm embrace of the golden sun's rays.

The Pacific bleeding heart is a perennial plant belonging to the Papaveraceae family.

Native Area West Coast of North America
Watering Requirements Average
Pests and Diseases Aphids, slugs, snails
Soil Type Loamy, fertile, and well-drained

Pink blossoms hover gracefully over a bed of lush green leaves, adding a delicate touch of color.

This plant is smaller compared to the common Japanese bleeding heart.

As its name suggests, this plant is native to the Pacific Coast and the wet forests near the coastline. It creeps and crawls along airy soil to form strands of fern-like foliage and pink-white heart-shaped flowers. In the forest, it stands out among other plants, and in the garden, it creeps as a ground cover for shady areas.

This bleeding heart is different than the common one Dicentra spectabilis in that it is smaller, and it is native to North America. The common bleeding heart is native to Japan and does not have as finely divided foliage. Although it is an old garden favorite, native species of Dicentra are quickly surpassing its popularity.

Other than its ornamental beauty, plant this native for its beneficial offerings to the local ecosystem. This plant has a unique appendage on its seeds that is rich in oil called an elaiosome. Ants love eating this oil, and they carry the seeds to new places when they discard them after feasting. Besides ants, bees, native birds, and beetles enjoy the seeds, foliage, and flowers.

A true perennial, this plant prefers a long dormancy during cold winter months. Then, in the early spring, bunches of fern-like foliage grow out of the ground before clusters of heart-shaped flowers. The flowers give way to the foliage, which stays green until fruits form from the flowers. After an entire year, the plant dies back to its rhizomes beneath the soil, and it conserves its energy so that it can sprout again.


A large clump of dicentra formosa has nodding pink flowers.

This Dicentra became popular in American gardens after its widespread use in the U.K.

Unlike most native plants cultivated widely, the Pacific bleeding heart was famous for garden use in the U.K. before the United States. Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies encountered it on his travels along the Pacific Coast. He collected its seeds and sent samples back to Kew Gardens. From there, Kew propagated the plant and spread it throughout the U.K.

After its wide use in the U.K., American gardens caught up and started featuring the Pacific variety instead of the common one from Japan. Nowadays naturalists use this plant widely in renaturalization projects, and gardeners highly favor it the world over. Native Americans use it as a remedy for skin issues and back pain.

The scientific name Dicentra means “two-spurred” in Latin and references the two points that come off of the heart-shaped part of the flower. Formosa means “beautiful and well-formed.” Any onlooker of this stately plant can see the name fits well!

Purple flowers cascade along a slender brown stem, contrasting beautifully against a soft backdrop of blurred greenery.

This shade-loving U.S. native plant benefits from dappled sunlight in forests.

Pacific bleeding heart is native to the Pacific Northwest, and it grows naturally from British Columbia down to central California along the coast in forests and woodlands. It prefers light, airy soil with good drainage and lots of water during the growing season.

Because it grows naturally in forests, this U.S. native thrives in dappled shade with protection from direct sunlight. It benefits from pockets of intermittent light throughout the day. In the forest, light passes through the trees sporadically, and this plant benefits from the occasional sunray.

This perennial commonly grows alongside other shade-loving forest floor dwellers like evergreen violets, Western fairy slippers, and fawn lilies. Ferns like the Western sword-fern, mosses, and lichens also grow profusely where this wildflower resides. In my garden, this plant slowly spreads each year under the shade of a tall Douglas fir tree, and it thrives without much intervention.

A close-up of flowers, nestled along a brown stem, vivid against a backdrop of blurred leaves.

It dies back in winter but sprouts again in spring.

Identify this plant easily by looking for its flowers, leaves, and structure. It typically grows to heights of one-and-a-half feet and widths of three feet or wider. From the ground in early spring, shoots of blue-green foliage sprout up. Then, stems with no leaves and clusters of pendant pink-white flowers bloom profusely. The flowers look like cut-open hearts with blood dripping down, which is where the plant’s interesting name comes from.

In the wild, this plant blankets woodland areas with conducive conditions for its growth. It spreads readily underground through fleshy and tubular root structures called rhizomes. This native also uses seeds to spread itself, and it employs ants to disperse these seeds by growing the oil-rich coating they eat.

In the fall, as temperatures dip below freezing, this plant dies back to its rhizomes and disappears above ground. Even in areas where winters are mild, this perennial dies back and rests for a season before sprouting to flourish in the other three.

White Pacific bleeding heart flowers delicately bloom, standing tall above a lush carpet of leaves.

The plant serves as ground cover in various environments.

Plant this Pacific Northwest native for its ornamental attributes and the wealth of natural resources it offers local wildlife. This plant is toxic for humans, and so I recommend not planting it in the vegetable garden. Situate it in an area you’d like nature to reclaim, as the shade it provides in the spring and summer creates a habitat for all sorts of bugs and critters on the soil.

In reforesting and naturalizing initiatives in the Pacific Northwest, this plant settles into new areas with ease. It is helpful as a deciduous ground cover in woodlands, forests, and shaded meadows. Plant one alongside shade-loving shrubs like snowberry and serviceberry, and trees like bigleaf maple and Douglas fir.

purple flowers against a blurred background, where a white dandelion and lush green plants create a serene.

Consider purchasing Pacific bleeding heart for a rewarding gardening experience.

Buy seeds or plants to try growing this perennial at home. Live plants are easier to transplant into the garden than starting from seed. However, seed starting is a rewarding process for the adventurous gardener. Try the species plant for gorgeous pink blooms, or try a fun cultivar like ‘Zestful’ with a longer bloom period and darker flowers.

A vibrant plant showcases its purple blooms under the warm sunlight, nestled among lush foliage in a garden.

Plant in a shady area after the last frost date with a thin soil cover.

Three options exist for the home gardener to establish this plant in the landscape–seed germination, live plant transplanting, or rhizome division. Rhizome division and live-plant transplanting are easier, however, growing plants from seeds is a fun experiment, and seed-grown plants often exhibit unique characteristics because of their genetic variability.

To grow this plant from seed, first stratify the seeds for 60-90 days in the refrigerator, or plant them directly into the garden in the fall. If using the fridge method, put seeds in an airtight container with sand that is moist but not soggy. Take the container out of the fridge once the 90 days are up, and plant seeds in a shady area after your last frost date. Cover them with a thin layer of soil no thicker than a quarter-inch.

Keep seeds and their soil moist until they germinate. Seedlings quickly mature, although they may not flower their first year. After a summer aboveground and a winter belowground, your plants should sprout their famous heart-shaped flowers next spring.

If you’re opting for transplanting or dividing, the process is a bit simpler. When dividing, first locate a mature clump. Then, in the fall, once the plant goes dormant, dig up part of the plant and sever the rhizomes. Plant the severed rhizomes a few inches deep in shady areas, and they’ll sprout and flower in the spring!

Transplant potted live plants in the fall or spring when the weather is mild and temperatures are cool. This ensures your transplants have time to establish themselves before the summer heat arrives in full force. Water your plants well while they establish themselves, and continue irrigating throughout the growing season if rainfall is low.

Pacific bleeding hearts stand out as stately specimens in the shade garden. With dappled shade, ample water, and airy soil, your plants will thrive each year. Once established, these perennials are no-fuss ground covers with little maintenance.

A close-up of purple flowers and foliage underneath, evoking a sense of natural beauty.

This native struggles in sunny areas unless consistently cool.

This West Coast native prefers partial shade to full shade. It is native to forests and woodlands and benefits from little pockets of light that peak through the trees. Simulate these conditions in the garden by placing this plant underneath deciduous and coniferous trees alongside other shade-loving plants.

Plants in sunny locations require additional water and are short-lived when they are continuously exposed to direct sun. This native does not adapt well to sunny locales unless temperatures are consistently cool. In the garden, its rhizomes creep towards areas where light is the most accommodating for optimal growth.

A rusty watering can releases a gentle cascade of water onto a plant adorned with purple flowers.

Watering plants in shady areas requires less time due to slower evaporation.

Shady forests have water readily available for plants on the forest floor, as the tree cover protects the soil from excessive moisture evaporation under the sun’s strong rays. Just like they do in the forest, Pacific bleeding heart plants prefer regular water in the garden during the growing season.

In the shade, watering plants is not as time-consuming as it is in full sun locales. The water stays in the soil longer, especially if the soil is clay-heavy. Ensure your plants don’t sit in standing water, but that their roots are moist and cool. You’ll want your soil to feel like a wrung-out sponge.

With less water in late summer, this plant slows its growth and enters a dormancy period until the spring. Water infrequently, if at all, during this time. In areas with regular winter rainfall, additional irrigation is unnecessary.

A close-up reveals dark, nutrient-rich soil, teeming with life and potential for growth.

Use compost or organic mulch around plants to improve soil quality.

This Dicentra prefers rich, porous, airy soil. It grows naturally in soil that contains lots of humus, decaying wood, and organic matter. By recreating these conditions in the garden, you set your native plant up for pinnacle growing success.

If your soil is heavy clay or incredibly sandy, you can amend your soil with compost or an organic mulch placed around the plants after planting. Over time, the amendments add beneficial microbes, fungi, and animals to the soil.

Plants grown in heavy clay soils require less water than those in porous soils, and those in sandy soils require more water. Adjust the irrigation schedule to match the plant’s soil type, and they’ll adjust to their new conditions over time.

Pink flowers nestled among verdant leaves, showcasing delicate beauty and contrast of colors.

Position this US-native flower in shaded, cooler environments.

The Pacific bleeding heart loves chilly temperatures and high humidity. It dwells on cool woodland floors in areas with lots of ambient moisture. Douglas-fir and redwood forests offer the perfect temperatures and humidities for this perennial.

In the garden, recreate forest conditions by placing your plant in the shade in a relatively cool area. Plants grown in warm zones eight and above may not grow as well as those grown in the colder zones. When they grow where there are warm winters, they lose their vitality each year, acting more as annuals than perennials in these areas.

A pink glove gently holds a cluster of white fertilizer granules, showcasing care in gardening.

They benefit from annual organic fertilizer applications in nutrient-poor soil.

When this plant grows in rich, fertile soil, it requires no additional fertilizer. If the soil is not particularly rich in nutrients, Pacific bleeding heart plants benefit from an annual dose of organic fertilizer in the spring. Follow the instructions on the fertilizer’s label to apply the right amount. Water well after applying it, and watch as your plants bloom profusely!


purple and white flowers bloom elegantly, contrasting against the smooth, pristine white wall in the background.

This perennial spreads freely and enriches the soil as it dies back annually.

This North American native plant requires little, if any, maintenance. Each year it dies back, and its foliage yellows and browns before falling to the floor. There, it decays and adds key nutrients back into the soil. When given space to freely roam, this perennial spreads and thrives with little intervention on the gardener’s part.

Pale pink flowers and green leaves under soft shade, contrasting beautifully against a blurred backdrop of verdant foliage.

Divide Pacific bleeding hearts in fall for healthier growth.

Want to contain this plant’s spread? Try growing it in a container! Container-grown bleeding hearts easily adapt to their conditions. When an area gets too sunny or hot, you can simply move the container to a cooler location.

Use a well-draining and fertile soil mix in the container. If the potting soil lacks drainage, consider adding perlite into the mix. Fill the container and plant seeds, divisions, or transplants into the soil. Water well and place the container in dappled shade.

Container-grown plants require more water than ones growing in the ground. Ensure the plant stays moist but not soggy, and water once the top few inches of soil are dry. The plants will tell you they’re thirsty by nodding low and not being as perky as they are when they’ve had a fresh drink of water.

After a few seasons in their containers, they appreciate division and repotting. Do this in the fall once the plant has gone dormant. Take it out of its container and dust off some soil. Using a sharp knife, separate the thick rhizomes into multiple sections. Each section makes a new plant, and they grow well in their containers. If you have enough, give the extras to your gardening friends!

A close-up of drooping purple flowers against a grassy backdrop, showcasing delicate petals in vivid hues.

Separate mature rhizomes into clumps using a sharp knife.

Pacific bleeding hearts propagate themselves without any aid! If you’d like to control or influence their advance, there are two options for propagation–seed collection and rhizome division. At the end of the growing season in late summer, the heart-shaped flowers will have turned into oblong seed pods. Collect these pods and sow seeds in the fall in the preferred location.

For rhizome division, dig up mature plants after they’ve died back completely below the ground. You’ll find thick, fleshy rhizomes with roots. Using a sharp knife, cut these rhizomes into a few clumps. The new groupings sprout in the spring as new plants. Bury them beneath the soil where you’d like them to grow.

Very rarely will this flower encounter diseases or pests, and poorly performing plants are usually a result of cultural conditions. Fear not, as a few simple tricks rectify these issues.

A close-up of Pacific bleeding heart leaves, showcasing their intricately lobed structure.

Nutrient-deficient soil can lead to plants with abundant foliage but few flowers.

Plants with ample foliage and few flowers occur from nutrient deficienciesDicentra formosa loves lots of nutrients, humus, and porous soil. Amend your soil with compost or organic mulch, or give your plant organic fertilizer for immediate flower growth.

A vibrant Pacific bleeding heart plant basks in radiant sunlight, showcasing its purple flowers wilting.

Relocate their rhizomes to a shady area once dormant.

Wilting plants are never a happy sight to see and are usually because of too much direct sunlight, high temperatures, or both. These conditions cause intense water evaporation, and the Pacific bleeding heart needs consistent moisture to thrive.

Address this issue by keeping the plants well-watered until late summer when they go dormant. When dormant, dig up the plant’s rhizomes and move them to a shady locale.

A cluster of tiny black aphids congregated densely on a green stem among leaves, feeding voraciously on the plant's sap.

Wash aphids away with water or manually remove them.

This ground cover occasionally receives visits from aphids. Wash them off with a strong stream of water, or pick them off by hand. Lots of small birds, insects, and ladybugs eat aphids. Leave the aphids on the plant to attract these predators over time.

Slugs and snails may nibble on the young leaves of this plant, though they aren’t usually a problem. If they do overrun your newly sprouted bleeding hearts, use slug bait or a beer trap.

I love the Pacific Bleeding Heart for its dissected foliage, heart-shaped flowers, and how easily it grows in the Pacific Northwest. Gardeners delight after planting it, especially in the early spring when the fronds pop out of the dirt. Watch the spectacle yourself and plant this perennial in your garden this fall. You won’t regret it!

The post How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Pacific Bleeding Heart is by Jerad Bryant and appeared first on Epic Gardening, the best urban gardening, hydroponic gardening, and aquaponic gardening blog.

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