There are 6 native species of Bleeding Heart family (Dicentra spp) in the US, and one other that is wildly popular, and widely assumed to be native, but is actually from northern China.
The Dicentra genus of plants are spring woodland ephemerals, blooming on the forest floor before the tree canopy leafs out. They thrive in moist conditions
Native Bleeding Hearts bloom in early spring and provide much-needed nectar for native bumblebees, whose tongues are long enough to reach this vital food source. Honeybees, which are NOT native to the US have tongues that are too short to use this plant.
Native Bleeding Hearts in the Dicentra genus also provide nectar for migrating hummingbirds at a time when not much else is in bloom for them to feed from.
Like Trillium, native Dicentra plants have seeds that are dispersed by ants. Dicentra seeds are coated in a sticky substance called an elaiosome which is quite attractive to ants. The elaiosome contains lipids and fats which are an important food source for ants.
The ants carry Dicentra seeds back to their nest to eat the elaiosome. The seeds are then left to germinate in the “trash heap” at the ant’s nest.
This is a smart strategy by plants. By making the elaiosome attractive to ants, they are assured that their seeds will be spread far and wide, and the plant will happily propagate itself in these new locations.
On the East coast we have 3 species of Dicentra:
- Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis)
- Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
- Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia)
For western gardeners there are also 3 species of Dicentra:
- Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)
- Shorthorn Steer’s Head (Dicentra pauciflora)
- Longhorn Steer’s Head (Dicentra uniflora)
Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia)
Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia), also known as Turkey Corn or Fringed Bleeding Heart, blooms in eastern woodlands in March and April. It is a bushy spring ephemeral with fern-like leaves and magenta/pink heart-shaped flowers, which grow along a leafless flower stem. Much-loved by migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the Wild Bleeding Heart is also a crucial source of nectar for native bumblebees.
Nursery owners have created several cultivars or “nativars” of Dicentra eximia, but it is not yet known if these provide the same benefits to wildlife as the species.
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is an early spring ephemeral wildflower that looks like upside down white “breeches” hanging on a clothes line. The leafless flower stalk extends above the fern-like leaves.
Be careful you don’t touch Dicentra cucullaria with your bare hands because all parts of this plant are toxic and may cause severe skin reactions.
Native bees swarm to Dutchman’s Breeches in early spring when little else is blooming.
Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis)
Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) is similar to Dutchman’s Breeches, but has white heart-shaped flowers along a leafless stem.
It gets its name from the underground tubers which resemble corn kernels.
Squirrel Corn is smaller than the other eastern Dicentras, forming 6″ clumps on the woodland floor. Like the other members of this genus, Dicentra canadensis is toxic and deer and other mammals tend to avoid it.
But mice and chipmunks are quite adept at spreading the tubers, and also find them a tasty snack.
Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)
Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa) resembles the Wild Bleeding Heart found in the east. It has pink heart-shaped flowers with a lavender tinge along branched leafless stems above the bluish fern-like foliage.
A favorite of early summer hummingbirds and bumblebees, Pacific Bleeding Heart plays a vital role in providing nectar.
The foliage is a larval host plant for the Clodius Parnassian butterfly.
Dicentra formosa grows in higher elevations and has adapted to low water and cold winters. It is often planted in shady rock gardens.
Shorthorn Steer’s Head (Dicentra pauciflora)
Shorthorn Steer’s Head (Dicentra pauciflora), also known as Few-flowered Bleeding-Heart, is native to southern Oregon and California, where it grows in the high mountains in gravelly soil.
Shorthorn Steer’s Head is a tiny plant with pink, white, or lavender flowers. These flowers have 2 curving outer petals pressed back against the flower and inner petals that extend straight outward.
The foliage of of Dicentra pauciflora is a larval host plant for the Clodius Parnassian butterfly.
Shorthorn Steer’s Head (Dicentra pauciflora) Photo © Dean Wm. Taylor
Longhorn Steer’s Head (Dicentra uniflora)
Longhorn Steer’s Head (Dicentra uniflora) with white or pink bilateral flowers that resemble a steer’s head. The flowers are tinged with light brown or purple.
Dicentra uniflora grows in gravelly soils in the western mountains.
The foliage of Longhorn Steer’s Head is a larval host plant for the Clodius Parnassian butterfly.
It may be surprisingly common, but very hard to find. Dicentra uniflora is a tiny plant, and may be lost among other plants.
Non-native Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis)
And then there’s the Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) that most of us are familiar with. But this one is not native. In fact it’s from China.
While it isn’t invasive, the questions we need to ask are:
- Do native bumblebees obtain nectar from this non-native Bleeding Heart?
- Does this nectar provide the same nutritional value as native Dicentra?
- Are ants able to find the corect balance of fats and lipids on the seeds of Lamprocapnos spectabilis?
- Do hummingbirds find these as attractive as a food source as native Bleeding Heart?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. And while I’m not suggesting you remove the non-native Bleeding Heart from your wildlife garden, I am suggesting you add some of the native Dicentra plants to your mix of early spring blooming plants in your Ecosystem Garden. The bumblebees, hummingbirds, and ants will be so very grateful!
To find local native plant nurseries that stock your native Dicentra or Bleeding Hearts, locate your state at the Find Native Plants resource page.
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