Valentines and golden hearts: Fecundity for May Day

My apologies for a contrived link to today’s celebration of the fertility of May Day. I have no lily-of-the-valley and I should have saved bluebells for today so I thought that dicentra would make a good substitute with its heart-shaped flowers.

Of course I am not really talking about a dicentra at all because Dicentra spectabilis is no longer a dicentra but is now Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Before I get to the pretty bit let’s get this name change over, but with relevance to the plant pictured below.

It has had several other names in the past and it was first introduced to the west from Asia in 1804 as fumaria. Although a member of the poppy family it was and is in the section of the family that includes fumaria and corydalis. It did not last long in cultivation unfortunately and was lost by the time it was introduced again 12 years later. But once again it was lost to cultivation and it was not until Robert Fortune, responsible for introducing a kaleidoscope of fantastic garden plants from Kerria japonica to the Chusan palm, bought a plant in Shanghai and sent it to Kew in 1846 that it became firmly settled in Britain. By the end of the century it was common and popular.

The thick, thongy roots send up brittle, glassy stems and it has been a common plant as long as I have been gardening. I remember, forty years ago, working in a nursery where we bought bundles of the roots, potted them, in winter, into plastic ‘bag’ pots and they sold like hot cakes in spring when in flower, maybe because there were not many other herbaceous plants available then!

Anyway, this plant was first a fumaria (from the word for smoke) and then dielytra, an allusion to the two large petals which resemble the wing cases of a beetle. Then it was lumped with the rest of the dicentras (from two horns). A recent (1997) study of the genetics of the plants discovered that our plant is not as closely related to the other dicentras as previously thought and so it was separated and given a name that Carl Linnaeus had previously given it. What this modern research has shown is possibly rather obvious because the other dicentras all have creeping, rhizomatous stems that do not grow above the soil. The leaves and flower stems grow up from these and so the aerial parts are not branched – you don’t get a stem with flowers and leaves. Our plant is different because the stem is upright and branches and flowers grow among the leaves. So this decision makes a lot of sense. It is just a shame that Lamprocapnos (meaning shining smoke) is such a mouthful! So Lamprocapnos spectabilis it must be. (Spectabilis means showy – or even spectacular!)

Out of interest, the climbing yellow dicentras have been hived off too and they are now Dactylicapnos, which presumably means smokey fingers.

Lamprocapnos spectabilis

Finally we have arrived! This hardy, beautiful herbaceous plant has a wealth of common names too, including lyre flower, bleeding heart and lady-in-a-bath. The last is by far the nicest and very obvious if you pick a flower and pull the two pink petals apart to reveal a naked lady standing in a bath. It is a plant that prefers a moist, humus-rich soil in part shade or full sun in northern gardens and grows quickly in spring to make it the showiest thing in the herbaceous border in April and May. Of course there is a price to pay for all this early colour and it tends to look scruffy by August and if the weather is hot and dry it can die down completely by late summer.

I sometimes find it shortlived but I think that is a combination of lack of moisture and slugs. Deal with that and it can be longlived and form lusty clumps of beautiful foliage on red stems and masses of delicate followers for several months.

There are several forms that are slightly different and the best, by far, is ‘Alba’ which has paler green foliage, palest green stems and pure white flowers. It is ‘to die for’ and while the others that follow are like death-by-chocolate with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles and chocolate sauce, this one is a small bar of 70% Ecuadoran bitter chocolate – pure and of immaculate taste.

dicentra val


Good though the old plant is, ‘Valentine’ is a real improvement and the one to look out for. It was discovered as a chance seedling by Phyllis and Lyle Sarrazin of Prince George, British Columbia, Canada in 2005 and was recognised as something special and since then has spread around the world. I am amazed by the plant and wonder why a seedling arose that was so different and where the dark colouring came from. The whole plant seems to have been infused with a double dose of pigment. The stems, leaves and flowers are all much richer in colour and, by coincidence or design, the plant seems to have more vigour too.

dientra val 2As usual, there are masses of blooms hanging elegantly from the arching or horizontal stems and it seems to flower longer too though that may just be me getting used to Irish growing conditions.

dientra val 3

‘Gold Heart’

Now this one is a different ‘kettle of fish’ entirely. Ignoring the fact that I am not fond of pink and yellow together, this is a plant you just can’t stop staring at. From the moment the leaves emerge in spring they are bright yellow. It is a thing of great beauty and, being best in shade, it brightens up the dullest border. But then the flower buds appear, in bright pink. And then you have a confection of pink and yellow that you will probably love. I have to say that the combination is so well done that even I am mesmerised but I wish it had the white flowers of ‘Alba’.

dic goldheart

* look for the signs of bad bees

‘Gold Heart’ was discovered in the garden of Hadspen House, Somerset, UK by Nori and Sandra Pope. It seems it was a chance mutation and it was a very fortuitous one because, even with my illogical prejudices, I have to say it’s a great plant. The only problem is finding the right spot for it.

In complete shade it will be a bit rangy, the leaves may be lime green rather than yellow and it may not flower as freely as it might. But put it in the midday sun and it will be as happy as Nosferatu! The leaves will get scorched and brown around the edges and look dreadful. I know that this is inevitable at the end of the season but you don’t want that mess while the flowers are trying to look elegant. So consider the site carefully and provide part shade or shade from the midday sun unless you have very moist soil. Dry soils and full sun make this plant ugly.

dic goldhreatWhen it comes to planting partners it doesn’t really matter because everything else will look dull next to it. All these dicentras (sorry, Lamprocapnos) have that remarkable ability to look good in almost any situation: they look appropriate in a cottage garden but also in minimal, modern designs. Ferns and hostas are perfect partners but heucheras and tiarellas, bergenias and any woodland plants would be suitable.

* If you look carefully you will see that the bees have been lazy here and rather then getting to the nectar the conventional way they have bitten through the top of the two outer petals. This is also what they tend to do with runner beans.

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2 Comments on “Valentines and golden hearts: Fecundity for May Day”

  1. joy
    May 1, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

    43 years ago today I met malc so expect those heart shaped flowers are appropriate lol

    • thebikinggardener
      May 1, 2014 at 5:37 pm #

      aww. I am glad the post was so appropriate! 43 years! You only get half that for murder!

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