Be Still My Bleeding Heart



Upon moving into my new home five years ago, I was dismayed to realize that my barren front yard received absolutely no sunshine whatsoever. None. Nada. Zip. Dark as the Grinch’s pre-Cindy Lou Who heart, this yard of mine. I had no idea how to garden in the shade.

I’d lived in Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, California, and now Oklahoma, and never before had I encountered a completely sun-free yard. Knowing that fertile soil, water, and sunshine are what plants need in order to grow, I wondered how I could create my happy, flowery world without the life-giving sun.

Desperately craving color, I soon found myself in the wretched, time-sucking embrace of Google, trying to learn about shade-loving plants. I was pleased to discover a whole new world (Cue: Jasmine and Aladdin) of pretty flowers and gorgeous plants that don’t need direct sunlight to thrive. In fact, many of these babies say, “Pooh to YOU, sunlight! We’ll stick with the shade, thankyouverymuch.” I have been planting a garden and growing things since I was a hippie child running naked and free on a remote Kansas farm, and it had not once occurred to me that plants could grow in total shade. Moss, I thought, maybe, but that’s about it.

In short: the discovery of shade-tolerant plants rocked my world view.

For the first few years, I planted shade annuals in my front landscaping, the trustworthy and dependable flowers known as impatiens. With occasional Miracle-Gro fertilization, my impatiens grew tall and strong without a fleck of sun. But every late fall, that sneaky bastard Old Man Winter would come along overnight and silently kill them all, forcing me to crawl around in my front yard in the cold air, removing the corpses and tidying up the scene of the crime with so much mulch. I grew tired of winter yard work. Yard work is for nice weather. In the winter, I only want to huddle under an electric blanket reading books and drinking red wine until I see the sun again. I needed a new plan.

Enter: shade perennials. Oh, perennials, you give me so much joy. I plant you once, and year after year, with only minor maintenance work from me, you come back. I can’t believe you keep coming back! You like me! You really like me!

I started searching the Internet, and eventually the local nurseries for shade-tolerant perennials. And I found some. Hostas, astilbe, ferns, hydrangea, pulmonaria, brunnera, helleborus, etc. But none have captured my love, all puns intended, like the bleeding heart plant, a.k.a. Dicentra.

Bleeding Heart Plant in My Front Landscaping, you complete me. Because you are me. I, too, am a bleeding heart. Because I cry every time I watch the news. Or one of those inspirational human interest stories on Sportscenter. Or if I visit an animal shelter. Or a pet store. Or when I see something that is just so niiiiiice it’s emotionally overwhelming. Because everything is overwhelming when you’re a freakishly empathetic emotional sponge like me. If you look in the dictionary next to “bleeding heart,” there is a picture of me holding this particular flower while rescuing a shelter kitten and sobbing over a copy of Where the Red Fern Grows. (I know. It’s okay if you want to laugh at me a little right now.)

So despite the fact that when I told my 6-year-old son the name of this flower, he immediately said, “Eeeew, Mom. It’s called a bleeding heart? That’s gross,” I still love it. That’s right! I’ll say it: I love my bleeding heart.


Look at the ferny, emerald leaves and the gracefully arched branch of tantalizingly bloody flowers. It could be the official plant of Edward Gorey. But despite its grisly name, the bleeding heart plant has the elegance of a thousand orchids. Maybe because the dripping blossoms never actually fall, forever remaining a frozen snapshot of a liquid moment, it seems to epitomize the stillness of nature for me. I always notice this peaceful slowing down of life while gardening, and it is the main reason I love to plant things. Nature can’t be rushed, and it halts my racing mind, reminding me that I am connected to everything as I commune with the elements, digging in the earth and pouring the water, but not feeling the sun. Not this time. My bleeding heart doesn’t need the sun in order to shine.

I bought my bleeding heart in the form of a rhizome, which is a withered, ugly little root-looking thing that resembles a deformed bulb. These are sold in the gardening section of local discount stores for less than $10. It came in a bag, loosely covered with dirt. I dug a small hole in the gigantic clay pot that is my Oklahoma front yard, added some good potting soil, and lightly covered it with mulch. I kept it moist and within weeks was rewarded with a small plant that has grown continuously, hibernating in the winter, but returning bigger and stronger every spring. (I apologize for my use of the word “moist” at the beginning of that last sentence. “Damp” bothers me almost as much, however, and now I’ve gone and used both of those awful words. I’m going to stop talking about it now, before “ointment” and “panty” make it into the discussion.)

If you have a mostly shady spot in your yard where nothing seems to grow, and you want to dress it up with a delicate beauty of a flower, try planting a pretty little bleeding heart. There are many different varieties and sizes, but all of them are deer resistant and easy to grow. You won’t be sorry.