We love Western bleeding heart (aka Pacific bleeding heart) because it’s so beautiful and delicate, especially in springtime when its leaves are fresh and flowers are bountiful. Whoever named it felt the same way, because botanically speaking it’s known as Dicentra formosa; the genus name Dicentra refers to the two nectar-bearing spurs characteristic of the flowers of the genus, and the epithet formosa derives from the Latin formosus, which means “beautiful”.
How it grows
With deciduous, finely divided, bluish-green leaves and enchanting, puffy pink flowers, it blooms from early spring into summer. In warm areas with no summer irrigation it tends to disappear after its leaves die back, but fleshy roots keep the plant alive until the following spring. Should moisture reach it during the summer or fall months, it could very well forget about dormancy and even produce more flowers in the fall. It prefers cool weather to hot, and can withstand cold winters.
Western bleeding heart naturally occurs from low to middle elevations in British Columbia and southward into Washington and Oregon (west of Cascades) and northern and central California. It thrives in part to full shade in damp forests and woodlands, in ravines, and near streams.
Wildlife seems to adore this plant as much as we do, due to a variety of attractants. The nectar-rich flowers attract hummingbirds, bumble bees, and syrphid flies, while the foliage may be consumed by the larvae of clodius parnassian butterflies in parts of its range. Aphids like it too, but don’t worry—the birds who like to eat them should keep them in check (especially if you have other natives to attract them): In late April, a small flock of Orange-crowned warblers—fresh from their migration from southern California or Mexico—paused in my yard to feed quite voraciously on them for nearly a week (as well as the flowers, which they pierce to obtain the nectar); a couple of the warblers have stayed around and may be nesting nearby. In addition to birds, unnoticeable predators such as the developing larvae of some species of syrphid flies can eat as many as 500 aphids (each!) before they become adults. In landscapes where predators and prey are allowed to exist, a naturalistic balance soon results.
Western bleeding heart mainly spreads by underground rhizomes, but it’s also figured out a way to get more mileage. The little black seeds of this plant evolved an oil-rich appendage (called an elaiosome) which ants may feed to their young. When the ants toss the unused part of the seed that’s still viable, they assist in dispersal.
The plant’s leafiness provides cover for small creatures like amphibians and various arthropods, and protects the soil as well. Reportedly, deer are not attracted to it, mostly likely because it contains an alkaloid — isoquinoline — which is toxic in large amounts.
Try it at home
This plant looks wonderful in woodland gardens growing beneath native conifers or other trees, in the company of ferns like deer fern (Blechnum spicant) or western sword fern (Polystichum munitum). It does best with light, moist soil that’s rich in organic matter. Adding a top layer of leaf compost or other organic matter (but not wood chips or bark mulch) and allowing fallen leaves to remain on soil will help maintain moisture around its roots, improve soil structure, and add some nutrients to the soil.
Keep in mind, though, that this is not a shy plant! It likes to prance around the yard so is not best for very small sites, especially if there are delicate perennials that awaken late and could be shaded out by the early arriving bleeding heart. That said, it’s not terribly difficult to remove should you decide you’ve lost affection for it later on (but don’t put its rhizomes in your home compost bins or it might spread everywhere).
Like red-flowering currant, western bleeding heart had to receive a transatlantic ticket to Europe before becoming popular in gardens here: Reportedly, when the Scottish naturalist and surgeon Archibald Menzies found it in Nootka Sound on the Vancouver Expedition in 1792, he gave it to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew a few years later. The plant’s seed was then cultivated in Europe, but was not known to be cultivated in the US until 1835.
Grab a partner
Western bleeding heart thrives with native conifers, and in the Pacific Northwest they might be western red cedar (Thuja plicata), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), grand fir (Abies grandis), noble fir (Abies procera), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), and coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), depending on the location. Deciduous trees like red alder (Alnus rubra) and vine maple (Acer circinatum) also like its companionship. Understory species often found growing with it include red huckleberry (Vaccinum parviflorum), evergreen huckleberry (V. ovatum), red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), salal (Gaultheria shallon), osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis), false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), Hooker’s fairy bells (Disporum hookeri), western meadow rue (Thalictrum occidentale), Scouler’s corydalis (Corydalis scouleri), stream violet (Viola glabella), ferns—such as western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) and lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina)—and mosses.
Other Dicentra species in the Northwest
The uncommon Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches) has white to pale pink flowers with yellow tips and occurs in parts of northern Oregon and southern Washington, mainly near the Columbia River. D. pauciflora, (shorthorn steer’s head or few-flowered bleeding heart), is native to Josephine County, Oregon and small parts of California, only at high elevations in gravelly soils. D. uniflora (steer’s head), is a rare relation that also grows in gravelly (sometimes serpentine) soils at low to high elevations in parts of the Northwest.