Perennial Notes Excerpts

This article first appeared in Perennial Notes, Volume XI, No. 3, Summer 1996.

Not every perennial belongs in the border. A climber that embraces a sturdy shrub is a perennial plant in its natural habitat. One herbaceous vine that flourishes in a few Georgia gardens, but ought to be more widely planted, is the yellow bleeding heart, Dicentra scandens. Its lemon-colored flowers are produced throughout the summer and elicit glances from everyone familiar with the more common, rosy bleeding hearts.

Allan Armitage admired Dicentra scandens several years ago in the Dublin garden of plantswoman Hellen Dillon. He brought seed back to the University of Georgia, where some of the resultant plants displayed blooms of a deeper yellow than the parent. Allan christened his selection 'Athens Yellow'.

Dicentra is included in the family Fumariaceae and possesses ternately compound leaves (in threes). 'Dicentra' comes from the Greek 'di' (two) and 'kentron' (in threes). This is an accurate description of the two-spurred flowers which are laterally flattened to create the recognizable chordate form. The blooms first appear in May and continue until Fall, an extraordinary bloom period for a perennial. 'Scandens' translates from the Latin (climbing), a reference to the plant's growth habit. The tendrils are actually modified leaflets that look to me like fragile stick-legs with tiny feet. These function variously as props or curling appendages, depending on what they are touching. Once started up a post, a shrub, or even a bit of window screen, Dicentra scandens will clamber effortlessly to a height of ten feet or so. I allow one of mine to weave through an established Japanese holly hedge, where the luminous citron hearts display themselves against the dark shrubbery. A second vine winds up a concrete pedestal to curl around a small piece of wrought iron sculpture.

Humus-enriched, woodland soils are ideal, and the plant needs at least a half-day of sun to bloom its best. Cuttings root easily in warm, moist conditions, but Armitage recommends making the cutting rather far from the terminal shoot, so as to include mature stem tissue. Yellow bleeding heart is not exactly a profligate producer of seed, though I have had an occasional self-sown plant turn up near the base of the parent vine. Others have reported similar volunteering in cases where soil conditions remain moist and somewhat shaded. Hardiness is still a question and one mail-order source rather optimistically suggests a northern limit of zone 6. Some losses were reported in the Atlanta area this winter (1995-96), attributable perhaps to the freakish frosts that took their toll on a number of normally reliable perennial plants.

Like many vines, Dicentra scandens presents marketing problems for growers. Its twining habit causes it to outgrow a pot quickly and its delicate herbaceous stem breaks easily, making it a poor candidate for shipping. My first mail-order specimen arrived bruised despite careful packaging and eventually dies back to the soil, although it re-sprouted in due course. For best results, try local perennial sources, or obtain a cutting from a friend.

Allen Sistrunk of Vines Botanical Garden cautions that Dicentra scandens can get lost in a border. Despite this shortcoming he appreciates the plant's subtlety and its ability to do well in a small space with limited light. Adaptability must be counted as another attribute, for this topaz-blossomed native of Nepal and China, having sojourned for a time in Ireland, is now receiving a warm welcome in gardens of the American southeast.