Bleeding hearts

Intricate as origami, among the first plants in the garden to flower every spring, bleeding hearts are as cheery and old-fashioned as hand-made valentines.  They seem to appear, fully formed, overnight. Their sprays of blossoms — each a heart-shaped pouch dangling a tiny white fan — float like Japanese lanterns above luminous fern-like foliage. Cultivated bleeding hearts, members of the poppy family, originated in Asia and were first brought to England in the early 1800s, though there’s also a wild variety native to North America that can be found in the woodlands of the Appalachians.

Gardens are so deeply rooted in our lives, perhaps particularly so this time of year when the smell of lilacs — one of nature’s most poignant aromas — can stop us in our tracks, stricken by the force of memory.  It’s the ephemeral beauty of gardens, I think, that fills us with such longing and joy. Here, in this moment, bleeding hearts are in their glory. Cut a spray or two; they’ll last for a few weeks indoors. But the plants themselves die back in the heat of summer.  One morning you’ll look out the window and realize that the delicate rigging of sprays and blossoms that sailed above the late spring garden are gone.


The Bleeding-heart
by Mary Oliver

I know a bleeding-heart plant that has thrived
for sixty years if not more, and has never
missed a spring without rising and spreading
itself into a glossy bush, with many small red
hearts dangling. Don’t you think that deserves
a little thought? The woman who planted it
has been gone for a long time, and everyone
who saw it in that time has also died or moved
away and so, like so many stories, this one can’t
get finished properly. Most things that are
important, have you noticed, lack a certain
neatness. More delicious, anyway, is to
remember my grandmother’s pleasure when
the dissolve of winter was over and the green
knobs appeared and began to rise, and to cre-
ate their many hearts. One would say she was
a simple woman, made happy by simple
things. I think this was true. And more than
once, in my long life, I have wished to be her.

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10 Responses to Bleeding hearts

  1. hanks for the poem - perfect timing. I like Nature's First Green is Gold too at this time of year. says:


  2. Roger Rosenthal says:

    We have a few on the block, some pink and think some white. I always am on the lookout for their bloom every spring. I think I’ve forgotten what my association is, but bleeding hearts remind me of Ginny.

    • Liza says:

      Hi, Rog. The association is actually a sad one — and strong for me, as well. There was a vase of bleeding hearts next to Ginny’s bed as she was dying. I like to think it was one of the last things she saw.

  3. Martha Gyllenhaal says:

    A few weeks ago I showed Robin (almost two) the bleeding hearts and how to open them to reveal the white pendent inside. I remember Granny showing me this tiny wonder around seventy years ago from the same bush though I have transplanted it from an area that now is in deep shade.

    Robin was delighted but now every time we walk by she wants to pick several and dissect them. This brings up the delicate balance between instilling wonder and maintaining the pristine look of a spring garden. But I never remember our indulgent Granny ever saying “don’t pick that” and so this year the bleeding heart bush looks a bit bedraggled.

    Thanks for your lovely post Liza,
    Take care, Martha

    • Liza says:

      What a lovely anecdote, Martha. I think instilling wonder should always outweigh the pristine garden. We’re so looking forward to seeing you in August!

  4. Lorraine Tinget says:

    Thanks so much, Liza. I have always loved bleeding hearts and very often find “babies” which I dig up to spread the wealth. But I’ve never cut one to bring into the house, thinking that they are much too delicate to be a cut flower. Thanks so much for that info! I will pick some tomorrow. Thanks also for Mary Oliver’s poem- love it.

    • Liza says:

      Thanks, Lorraine. I’m looking at a vase of bleeding heart sprays as I write this! Hope your garden is thriving.

  5. Phyllis says:

    Yippee! Always a lovely post. Thanks!

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