Dicentra Dicentra is a genus of about 20 annuals and perennials (of which about 8 are perennial) and many cultivars. They are native to both Asia and North America (though possibly an ‘honorary native’ in the latter, dating from colonial times), mainly in woodland habitats.

Their roots vary between rhizomes,tubers or fleshy tap roots. All varieties are reliably hardy. Most are deciduous but some are evergreen and have fern-like, divided foliage, some of a silver – grey colour.

Flowers – which come in shades of red,pink and white – hang as pendents on racemes or panicles and are very distinctive – two outer petals are pouched, giving a heart-shaped outline with the two inner petals forming a hood over the anthers. Not surprisingly this arrangement has led to many descriptive common names such as:

  • Bleeding heart (most usually used for D. spectabilis)
  • Showy bleeding heart
  • Dutchman’s breeches
  • Chinaman’s breeches
  • Locks and keys
  • Lyre flower
  • Seal flower
  • Old-fashioned bleeding heart

Flowering time is late spring into early summer. The flowers and foliage are useful in flower arrangements, the flowers lasting well in water.

Dicentra canadensis (Squirrel Corn)

Dicentra canadensis (Squirrel Corn)

Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman's breeches)

Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches)

Dicentra formosa oregona 'PEARL DROPS'

Dicentra formosa oregona ‘Pearl Drops’

Dicentra formosa pink

Dicentra formosa

Dicentra formosa

Dicentra formosa – close up of flowers

Dicentra peregrina (Komakusa)

Dicentra peregrina ‘Komakusa’

Dicentra spectablis

Dicentra spectablis

Most of the perennial Dicentra make good border plants, though a couple are rather invasive (spectabilis and formosa) and are best used in a woodland garden, where seedlings or spreading rhizomes can be allowed to expand or be easily removed. D. spectabilis is not long-lived. All Dicentra are low in allergens, but all parts of the plant are poisonous and a skin irritant.

Most varieties prefer growing in half shade in moist fertile soil – but they are drought tolerant so can be useful in drier shaded positions.

Most varieties grow to between 25cm and 45cm tall, though D. spectabilis is taller and the white form (‘Alba’) and ‘Gold Heart’ (with striking yellow foliage) grow to 90cm tall and spread to around 50cm.

Further information:

Dicentra spectabilis

Varieties and growing Dicentra

Dicentra ‘Stuart Boothman’ AGM

National Dicentra collection

Dicentra photographs

Old School Gardener

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