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In Good Thyme

"The flower most associated with Valentine's Day is, of course, the red rose, which symbolizes passionate love. The pink rose stands for innocent love (remember prom corsages?), yellow for joy, white for purity. But there's another flower that can't be bought at the florist shop that is a valentine in itself. It's bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), a graceful springtime perennial that's been a favorite in old-fashioned gardens for generations. Native to Japan, it was introduced to England and the Americas in the mid nineteenth century. There is also a Pacific Northwest native bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa, which I have seen growing in the moist, shady forests on the slopes of Mount Baker. Although pretty, it's smaller and far less ornate than its cultivated cousin, and can be invasive in a garden setting. Dicentra spectabilis has fern-like leaves adorning gracefully arched, fleshy stems. Flowers hang on fine strands like dainty, heart-shaped pendants, unfurling in rows. The pink or rose-colored bleeding heart is best known, but the pure white form is equally lovely. Bleeding heart can be started from seed after all danger of frost has passed, or plants may be purchased in pots from the nursery. Plant in shade or partial shade in rich, light, well-draining soil that's been amended with a good amount of humus-y compost. Soil should be moist but never soggy. Too much exposure to sun and dry soil conditions will burn its delicate foliage and decrease blooms. Bleeding heart is already pushing up shoots in our moist maritime climate. It should bloom from early spring through June or July, depending on growing conditions. It grows to about 2-1/2 to 3 feet tall and equally wide. As temperatures climb, bleeding heart begins to die down until it goes completely dormant by August, when you can trim the faded stalks to the ground. In deep shade areas, it may keep its foliage through summer's end, and may even produce a second bloom. I've experienced this with white bleeding heart, but not the pink. Because it dies back so early in the season, I've planted mine where the fading foliage is hidden by other plants. One of them is disguised by the overshadowing leaves and flower clusters of Hydrangea paniculata. One fades away into the foliage of meadow rue; another hides beneath the silver lace of Artemisia Powis Castle. Yet another bleeding heart languishes into a cushion of ferns. Another good thing about bleeding heart is that deer don't find them particularly palatable. Of course, a really hungry deer will eat almost any plant. Now that you know how to grow bleeding heart, it's time to learn how to play with it. Almost every child who grew up in a garden with bleeding heart knows how to gently pull apart the heart-shaped blossom to find the tiny treasures within. My sisters and I thought that the separated blossoms resembled miniature ballerinas. Other children see tiny bunnies or baby shoes. Of course, you don't want to tear all the blossoms from your plant, but it won't hurt to be a child again, just once. Give yourself a valentine; pick one or two little hearts and see what magic they hold! Next week I will be visiting the sunny land of bougainvillea and avocado trees. While I'm in San Diego, this column will be written by veteran Master Gardener Fran Sabine, who penned In Good Thyme for several years in the early 1990s. I know you'll enjoy her writing style and gardening savvy. "

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