Pacific Bleeding Heart

Poulsbo, WA – There is nothing quite like spring in the Pacific Northwest.  After months of rain, wind and dreary skies, spring arrives as the perfect antidote, capable of lifting our spirits with nothing more than golden rays of sunshine wooing plant and animal wonders from their hiding places.

In the woodlands, the delicate trillium, salmonberry and maple blossoms start the subtle transformation.  When you begin to see them, search the ground for the arching Pacific Bleeding Heart, a lovely ephemeral with a blossom that fades quickly.  This beautifully sculpted blossom grows low to the ground surrounded by fern-like foliage sprouting from a network of rhizomes near the surface of the soil.

Pacific Bleeding Heart growing wild – Bainbridge Island

In the forest, symbiotic relationships are common and quietly transpire right under our noses. Ants love the Bleeding Heart for a part of their black seeds. The ants carry the seeds back to their hills to eat the oily white leaf-like appendages known as elaiosomes, then neatly dispose the viable seeds in their trash piles, which of course provides the perfect growing medium and a new plant story begins. The ants get a meal and the Bleeding Heart expands its territory.

Bleeding Heart Seeds

The Bleeding Heart is toxic so don’t let the innocent appearance lure you into a harmful nibble. Touching it can cause skin irritation in some people. Like many other woodland plants, the roots can be used medicinally, in this case to make a tincture to reduce pain from bruises and sprains, as well as calming frazzled nerves when carefully prepared and ingested.

Wonder tempts us to explore the world with all five senses, but remember to trek and track wonder with lots of curiosity slathered with a generous layer of caution. If you find that your young trackers are interested in tasting wonder, initiate a discussion about edible and non-edible plants and find some easily identifiable edible plants to enjoy as you track. Regularly find ways to remind children (and pets) to make a positive identification as an edible plant and part before putting anything even close to curious mouths. In some plants, one part may be edible, but another part is toxic or irritate skin.

WT LogoCultivate Wonder… Discover Design

When and Where? Pacific Bleeding Heart love moist soil, but don’t like to stand in water.  Look for them in shady woodland areas in the early spring alongside other spring wildflowers.

Wonder Triggers for Young Trackers

  • What does this plant look like?  If you were naming this plant, what would you call it? Do you know what it is called?
  • Can you find Pacific Bleeding Hearts in the woods? Do they grow alone or in groups?  Why do you think they grow in groups?
  • What other plants do you notice growing near the Pacific Bleeding Heart?
  • Use your hand lens to study the blossom up close.  What colors and shapes do you see?
  • What is the purpose of flowers? If flowers are seed makers, do you think there is will one big seed or many smaller seeds?  It actually becomes a pod (like peas) full of seeds.
  • If the plant has produced seeds, look closely to see the elaiosome (white fleshy part) on each seed.  That structure attracts ants and is actually full of fat and protein.  Look on and around the plant to observe ants carrying away the nutritious seeds to share with their friends.
  • Does the ant help or hurt the plant? How?

References and Resources

Alderleaf Wilderness College

Gardenerdy – Brilliantly Interesting Facts

Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine

Images – Sharon Pegany – Copyright 2018 – Seed image by Erutuon, Creative Commons

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