How to Plant & Grow Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

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White flowers of the Dicentra formosa 'Aurora' cultivar
Pacific bleeding heart has dangling heart-shaped blooms that attract several specialized pollinators such as bumblebees and hummingbirds. KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dicentra formosa is a lush perennial that is known for its unique inflorescences. It is commonly referred to as Pacific or western bleeding heart. First noted by a European explorer on the western coast of North America, this species has been cultivated for ornamental purposes since the early 1800s. Though it is native to British Columbia and the Pacific coast of the US, the first greenhouse cultivars were reared in the UK.

Classified under the Papaveraceae or poppy family, this attractive species is often confused with its close relatives (e.g. D. eximia, D. peregrina, Lamprocapnos spectabilis).

Distinguishing features of Pacific bleeding heart include its fern-like foliage and, of course, its dangling heart-shaped blooms! Clusters of 5 – 15 pink hearts arise on the tips of leafless floral stems. These stems often tower above the entire plant as they reach a maximum length of 18 inches (45 cm). The springtime flowers consist of two curved outer petals and two inner petals, forming a pouch. The floral opening and reproductive organs are oriented downwards, giving them a somber yet playful appearance. Once pollinated, seeds develop in dry, pointed pods.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Pacific Bleeding Heart

Leaves unfurling from a Pacific bleeding heart plant
Pacific bleeding heart blooms in the springtime and enters a period of dormancy towards the end of summer. National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Formosa is a fitting epithet for this species as it means “beautiful” in Portuguese. The eye-catching features look incredibly fragile, though the plant itself is known for being quite hardy! It is a perfect option for flower beds, shrub borders, and rock gardens. Due to its self-seeding capacity and rhizomatous means of spreading, it can also be used as an effective fire-resistant ground cover. The only downside is it does enter a period of dormancy in late summer, during which its leaves die back. Rear this species alongside summer/fall peak plants to mask its dormancy.

The conspicuous flowers are great for attracting several specialized pollinators, including bumblebees, hummingbirds, and syrphid flies. The foliage is consumed by Parnassiinae larvae, which metamorphose into red-spotted butterflies. Even aphids are known for taking a liking to this plant. Fortunately, birds and flies across its native range can help decimate aphid populations.

Interestingly, this species has some herbal uses as well. Due to its alkaloid content (which is notably toxic), it has been used in tonics to soothe pain and treat nerve disorders. The pulverized roots have even been added to tinctures for the treatment of teeth and mouth-related trauma. Those wishing to benefit from the pharmacological properties must be extremely wary, however, as improper usage can result in poisoning.

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Pacific Bleeding Heart Fact Sheet:
Herbaceous perennial
USDA 4 – 8
Partial shade to full shade
Pink, red, white
18 inches (45 cm)
0.5 – 2 inches (1.3 – 5 cm) in soil
pH 5 – 8

Pacific Bleeding Heart Growth, Hardiness & Climate

Pacific bleeding heart plants in woodland
Pacific bleeding heart prefers fertile, well-draining soil and thrives in moist woodlands and riparian forests. Walter Siegmund, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the wild, Pacific bleeding heart grows best in moist woodlands, sub-alpine meadows, and riparian forests. It prefers fertile, moist, well-draining soil, but is averse to waterlogged substrates. Its features thrive under partial shade conditions, such as that found beneath a conifer tree or taller ferns. It may also be cultivated in full shade, but may produce fewer flowers as a result. Bleeding heart can be grown along a pond’s edge, as it is tolerant of a slightly acidic pH and will favor nutrients from the occasional spray of water.

Though this species can spread through rhizomes, it is not known for out-competing other native plants. Yet, growing it in limited spaces or small containers may not be the best idea as it may cast delicate plants in shade. When left to grow in optimized conditions, its seeds may be brought to other sections of the garden or greenhouse by ants! These dispersal agents are attracted to the seeds, which have an elaiosome. This nifty appendage contains a nutritious oil, perfect for sustaining the offspring of ants.

How to Plant Pacific Bleeding Heart

Pacific bleeding heart seeds
If you want to plant Pacific bleeding heart via seeds, you should sow them in the fall. John Rusk / CC BY 2.0

D. formosa can be planted via seed, division, or bare rootstock. If you intend to use seeds, the best time to sow them is during fall. They will require a period of cold exposure to germinate, so expect the first tissues to crop up in the succeeding spring. If you prefer having the seeds go through indoor stratification, they can be sown in shallow germination containers. These containers should then be placed in a clean plastic bag and kept in the freezer for about 6 – 8 weeks. If sowing seeds outdoors, they should be buried under half an inch (1.3 cm) of soil and kept moist just until the first frosts occur.

If using root divisions, amend the substrate by incorporating compost into the mix. This will create a nutrient-rich environment for the roots. For best results, make sure to use divisions obtained in fall or early spring. Dig out enough soil to create a hollow that comfortably accommodates fanned out roots. The ‘eye’ of the cutting, where new foliage is expected to arise, should be facing upward. It should be situated around an inch below soil level. Divisions should be spaced about 2 – 2.5 feet (61 – 76 cm) apart.

Stem cuttings can also be propagated, though they may take weeks to root. Moreover, they are prone to rotting if the substrate and moisture levels are inadequate or if exposed tissues come into contact with pathogens. A rooting hormone may be necessary to increase the chances of successful propagation. For both seedlings and stem cuttings, indoor cultivation is best until the new tissues are strong enough to withstand outdoor elements.

How to Care for Pacific Bleeding Heart

Pacific bleeding heart with dying flowers
Pacific bleeding heart’s foliage may turn yellow or even die back if it is exceptionally hot or if there’s a drought. Peter Stevens / CC BY 2.0

The best way to soothe a bleeding heart is to make sure it receives heaps of love and care (pun intended)! Plants that are situated close to trees or thirsty shrubs may need more water to ensure that the soil remains moist. In the event of a drought or exceptionally hot summer temperatures, the foliage will quickly become yellow and may die back as the roots enter dormancy. These should be cut down before they attract pests and diseases.

It would be wise to place a flag or some type of marking in spots with dormant roots. For additional nutrients, a thin layer of compost, leaf mold, or well-rotted manure should suffice in place of fertilizer. Keep an eye out for slugs and snails as they can significantly damage the plant. Manually remove them as soon as they are found. If aphids and scales are present, a soap-based or neem oil spray may help.

How to Winter Pacific Bleeding Heart

Bleeding heart may be left outdoors through winter. Other than a generous layer of mulch to protect its dormant roots, it will not require any special treatment. Once the foliage begins to die back in summer or fall, the main shoot can be cut down to about 1 – 2 inches (2.5 – 5 cm) above soil level. This will prevent the plant from attracting decomposing bacteria or from being damaged by frost and winds. New shoots and leaves should appear in late winter or early spring.

Is Pacific Bleeding Heart Invasive or Toxic?

Despite its capacity to self-seed and spread by rhizomes, D. formosa is not known for being an aggressive grower. It is non-invasive outside of its native range, even in areas with optimal growth conditions. Nonetheless, do avoid tossing any uprooted plants or root divisions into the compost heap as they may readily sprout there!

Bleeding heart toxicity, on the other hand, is a more pressing matter to discuss. All plant parts contain isoquinoline alkaloids, which are secondary metabolites with medical significance. Those in D. formosa are poisonous when ingested in large quantities. When consumed, both the roots and foliage can cause convulsions, nausea, diarrhea, breathing problems, and trembling. Bruised plant parts may also cause skin irritation upon contact, so always handle the plant with gloves.

Is Pacific Bleeding Heart Edible? Do Animals Eat it?

Due to its toxic contents, D. formosa is not an edible plant. Harvesting its parts for medicinal purposes must be left to experts. Use of tonics or tinctures as natural alternatives to drugstore medication is not advised.

Deer and rabbits typically avoid this plant. If you have pets or livestock on your property, make sure they don’t attempt to graze on bleeding heart. Closely observe them for poisoning symptoms in the event that they do, and consult your local veterinarian for a course of treatment. Ingestion of this species can be fatal for dogs.

Where to Buy Pacific Bleeding Heart & Seeds? (UK & US)

Dicentra formosa can be purchased as potted plants or seeds from plant nurseries and garden centers in its native range. It can also be purchased from online plant portals, though availability tends to be seasonal. Keep in mind that some shops may mislabel this species as Dicentra eximia. In some cases, they may carry hybrids between the two species. It can be challenging to distinguish them from one another if the plants are not in bloom. 

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