It is easy to see why gardeners love to plant Lamprocapnos spectabilis in shady gardens throughout the northern hemisphere. The lush, compound leaves (see images here) are beautiful on their own (and work particularly well alongside ferns), while the hanging pink and white heart-shaped flowers, arranged along a long graceful raceme, are well known for interesting appearance. Pink, dewy flowers usually don’t hold much appeal for me, but in this case, Lamprocarpnos spectabilis has enough of the strange and unusual about it to suit my tastes. The imagery associated with its name is somewhat dark, and is made all the more poignant by the fact that every part of the plant is poisonous. Bleeding heart flower stems are commonly sold in Valentine’s Day bouquets, and are said to be a symbol of undying love, but they make me think instead of unrequited love and heartbreak.
There are some people who share my view of this species; a Japanese myth explains that the first bleeding heart arose from a wrenching heartbreak. A young Japanese gentleman, smitten by a beautiful girl, first offers her a pair of rabbits. She accepts these, but asserts that she does not love him. He gives her a delicate pair of white slippers, but still cannot win her admiration. Then the young suitor presents a pair of sparkling white earrings to the girl, and again she accepts the gift but refuses to marry him. The young man, having nothing left to give, pierces his own heart in despair. It is said that the very first bleeding heart grew from the ground where the Japanese courter died.
This sounds like a cheesy romance, but is actually a lesson in botany. The outside petals of the Lamprocapnos spectabilis flower can be imagined as the rabbits. Remove those, and you reach an inner set of petals that are similar to slippers. A third set of inner petals are the earrings. When all of the petals are reassembled, they form the heart, which is stabbed by the stamen. You can see the flower parts that correspond to the story via the “Tales from the Hollow Tree” blog.
Gardeners in the Pacific Northwest can also choose to plant a native species of bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa, previously featured on Botany Photo of the Day. For a long time, Lamprocapnos spectabilis was thought to be in the same genus as the Pacific bleeding heart, but a 1997 paper reassigned it to its very own genus (again) of which it is the sole member. It is quite common to find Asian bleeding heart still referenced by its synonym, Dicentra spectabilis. Other common names for this eastern Asian species include Venus’s car, lady-in-a-bath, and lyre-flower.