How to care for dicentra: when to cut back and how to plant
Low-maintenance and reliable with a long season of interest, dicentras are one of the easiest plants for shade. Plantsman Jimi Blake, who has a passion for woodland gardening, shares his favourites and explains how best to use them in shady beds
Commonly known as bleeding hearts, dicentras are perhaps the most quintessential of woodland plants. I could not imagine gardening without their filigree foliage and heart-shaped pendulous flowers. Held on arching, leafless stalks, these flowers move in the slightest breeze in cool, humid, shady gardens. Perhaps the plant most people think of as the typical bleeding heart is the species once called Dicentra spectabilis, and the only reason I’ve not included it here is that it has now changed its name to Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Dicentras are mainly suitable for the shady parts of the garden, where they start flowering in spring and continue into summer and autumn, depending on the species or cultivar and growing conditions. Dicentras are plants with an incredibly long season, and should be used in all shady gardens.
- How to plant dicentra
- When to cut back dicentra
- How to propagate dicentra
- Dicentra diseases
- Jimi Blake's favourite dicentras
- Where to see and buy dicentra
How to grow Dicentra
How to plant dicentra
Dicentras need well-drained, humus-rich soil in dappled shade to perform well. When I plant dicentras I like to incorporate compost into the planting hole to give them a good start in life. In very wet soil they can die out so avoid soil that gets water logged at
any time of year.
New growth can occasionally get frosted, if you get very cold, frosty weather in late spring, but the plants always bounce back into growth for summer. If you live in an area of very high summer temperatures dicentras may go dormant to store their energy. When temperatures drop towards the end of the summer they should reappear.
When to cut back dicentra
Cut back any plants that look untidy after flowering, or any time during the summer months, to ground level. Give them a good watering, if the soil is dry, and mulch with 5cm of compost. After this cutting back, they will usually send up fresh foliage and often flower again. By keeping the fresh look in the shade garden in late summer and autumn you extend the season. When mine look scruffy in autumn or early winter, I cut them to the ground and add compost to the area.
How to propagate dicentra
The most successful and easiest way to propagate dicentras is by division. I divide mine in late winter to early spring when they are just starting into growth by putting the divisions into pots of compost. These will be ready for planting out in early summer.
You can also propagate dicentras by seed, which is best collected in summer or early autumn and sown fresh. In their native habitat and sometimes in the garden, ants disperse the seeds. Leave pots of freshly sown seed in a cold frame over winter so they are exposed to the cold of the winter months. Germination usually takes place in spring, but I find propagation by division to be the fastest and most successful method.
Dicentras are generally disease free, but very occasionally they can get downy mildew and rust. When this happens cut them back, water with a liquid seaweed feed and add a 5cm mulch of compost on top.
Some dicentras contain alkaloids in the leaves, which can be poisonous if eaten and can cause skin allergies.
The bleeding heart flower: profile
What Rhizomatous or tuberous perennials for the shade garden. Made up of around eight species in the Papaveraceae family, they are commonly known as bleeding hearts. Several close relatives, including Lamprocapnos spectabilis, the yellow-flowered Ehrendorferia chrysantha, and the climbing Dactylicapnos macrocapnos and Dicentra scandens, have been included in Dicentra at one time. Origins They are native to North America and parts of far eastern Asia. Season From spring and into summer with some still flowering in autumn if growing conditions are suitable. Size Generally, 20cm high and up to 50cm wide but depends on growing conditions, and some species and cultivars spread more vigorously. Conditions Dappled shade in humus-rich, well-drained soil that is moisture retentive. Hardiness Hardy throughout all of the UK with RHS hardiness rating of H5-H7 and suitable for gardens
in USDA zones 3a to 9b.
Jimi Blake's favourite dicentras
A hybrid between Dicentra formosa and Dicentra eximia with a compact growth habit. The leaves are silvery green throughout the growing season. The flowers are deep pink from spring until autumn as long as temperatures are not too high. 25cm x 30cm. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 3a-9b.
Dicentra ‘Stuart Boothman’
Another cross between Dicentra eximia and Dicentra formosa, with very narrow and delicate glaucous-blue leaflets and deep-pink flowers. Named for nurseryman Stuart Boothman. 45cm x 70cm. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 3a-9b.
Has beautiful blue-grey, finely dissected foliage emerging in early spring. The flowers are a deep pink in late spring and sporadically reappear until autumn. Looks wonderful combined with snowdrops. 30cm x 60cm. RHS H7.
More like this
Dicentra formosa ‘Aurora’
Glaucous-grey leaves from early spring to winter. The white flowers appear from May to September. Originally bred by the late nurseryman Ernst Pagels in Germany. A hybrid between Dicentra formosa and Dicentra eximia. 45cm x 70cm. RHS H7, USDA 3a-8b
Dicentra ‘King of Hearts’
This is a cross between Dicentra peregrina, Dicentra formosa subsp. oregona and Dicentra eximia. The foliage is glaucous-grey from early spring to the end of autumn. Dark-rose flowers appear from May until August. 45cm x 75cm. RHS H7, USDA 3a-8b.
Glaucous-blue, filigree type foliage with creamy-white flowers. Native to eastern North America, where it is sadly endangered, it is a spring ephemeral, flowering in spring and going dormant for summer. 20cm x 30cm. RHS H7.
Dicentra cucullaria ‘Pittsburg’
This compact Dicentra has grey-green foliage with pale-pink flowers that have a yellow-orange base. They are usually summer dormant, especially in warmer climates. 15cm x 25cm. RHS H7.
Dicentra ‘Ivory Hearts’
A beautiful cross between the Japanese hybrid Dicentra peregrina and Dicentra eximia ‘Alba’, with a long flowering season. It has ivory-coloured flowers and glaucous-coloured foliage. 25cm x 70cm. RHS H5, USDA 3a-8b.
Dicentra formosa ‘Langtrees’
One of the longest flowering dicentras, with attractive, silvery-grey leaves. Flowers are a creamy pink over a long season from spring to winter. 45cm x 45cm. AGM. RHS H5.
Dicentra formosa ‘Bacchanal’
Fern-like, greenish glaucous leaves from spring to autumn. The flowers are deep crimson from late spring through summer. One of my most asked about woodland plants. 25cm x 70cm. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 3a-9b.
Dicentra ‘Red Fountain’
A beautiful cultivar with glaucous-blue foliage and rich, deep-red flowers over a long season from May to September. It is a compact cultivar so looks good growing in pots or on the edge of a shade bed. 25cm x 40cm. RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b.
Where to see and buy dicentra
• Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens Clacton Road, Elmstead Market, Elmstead, Colchester, Essex CO7 7DB. Tel 01206 822007, bethchatto.co.uk
• Edrom Nursery Coldingham, Eyemouth, BerwickshireTD14 5TZ. Tel 01890 771386, edrom-nurseries.co.uk
• Hunting Brook Gardens Tinode, The Lamb Hill, Co. Wicklow, W91 YK33 Ireland. Tel +353 (0)87 285 6601, huntingbrookgardens.com Open April – September, Wednesday – Saturday, 11am-4pm.
• Pineview Plants, Orchard Place Business Centre, Wrotham Heath, Seven Oaks, Kent TN15 8QU. Tel 01732 882945, pineviewplants.co.uk Open to visitors by appointment only.
Jimi Blake is a plantsman and author and the owner of Hunting Brook Gardens near Dublin.
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