The heart flower was poisonous plant of the year in 2021. It is popular in Central Europe as an ornamental plant, which is due to its unique flowers, whose shape is reminiscent of a heart. These flowers provided plenty of material for love myths, and the toxic plant also contains highly effective bioactive substances.
Common names: Bleeding Heart, Flaming Heart, Mary’s Heart, Two-Tone Heart Flower, Herzelstock, Beautiful Double Spur, Male in the Bathtub
Family: Poppy family (Papaveraceae)
Distribution: East Asia (Korea, Far East of Russia, Northern China), cultivated as an ornamental plant in many countries
Plant parts used: Due to its toxicity, the plant itself is not used in medicine; medical research focuses on isolated individual substances that have great medical potential.
Ingredients: Butenolides, menisdaurilides and aquilegolides, isoquinoline alkaloids, including protopine, sanguinarine, cularine, chelerythrine. The root has an alkaloid content of 0.75 percent, the herb 0.17 percent.
Areas of application: The highly toxic alkaloids have enormous potential to be used as isolated components in medicines, but the plant itself is not used in medicine because of its toxicity. It is strongly advised not to use it as a home remedy – there is a risk to life.
Heart Flower – An Overview
The pink flowers of the heart flower look like little hearts with white tears hanging from them. This is where the name “bleeding heart” comes from. The flower is also associated with unhappy love in Japan, Korea and China.
The bleeding heart likes fresh garden soil that allows water to pass through and contains plenty of humus. In addition, in its original homeland, northern East Asia, it grows in a climate similar to that in Central Europe and is therefore a low-problem garden plant in this country.
The bleeding heart was the poisonous plant of 2021.
The alkaloids contained in the heart flower are as toxic as they are medicinally effective.
The heart flower is not a good nutrient plant for endangered native insects. In the Netherlands it was even observed that bees died if they consumed a lot of Bleeding Heart nectar.
Due to its special flower shape, the bleeding heart spread as an ornamental plant in England in the early 19th century.
The native larkspurs are closely related to the genus Heartflowers. Both belong to the subfamily Fumariaceae.
Bleeding Heart – Ingredients
Bleeding heart has a high content of butenolides, menisdaurilides and aquilegolides, isoquinoline alkaloids, including protopine, sanguinarine, cularine, chelerythrine. The root has an alkaloid content of 0.75 percent, the herb 0.17 percent.
Heart Flower – Toxic Effects
The root in particular is very poisonous due to its high alkaloid content. Contact with the skin and mucous membranes irritates, leads to burning, itching and blistering.
When consumed, if the poison enters the digestive tract, typical consequences include: intestinal inflammation, bloody diarrhea, colic, cramp-like pain and kidney damage. At higher doses, paralysis of the central nervous system, shortness of breath and death.
Sanguinarine acts as a neurotoxin by blocking the sodium-potassium pump. Absorption through the mouth and into the gastrointestinal tract is less toxic than inhalation or injection.
Bleeding heart – what to do if you are poisoned?
The essential method to neutralize heart flower alkaloid poisoning is to administer activated charcoal and sodium sulfate. These substances absorb the toxins in the digestive tract so that the body can eliminate them without causing any harm.
Gastric lavage is also recommended. After poisoning, kidney functions and electrolyte balance must be checked. If these are disturbed or damaged, appropriate medication is administered.
If breathing difficulties occur, oxygen ventilation is given. Cramps can be treated with diazepam. Anyone who suffers from significant alkaloid poisoning must have the option of artificial ventilation until the symptoms subside.
The alkaloid protopine it contains relieves pain, inhibits inflammation and blood clotting. The mechanism of action is similar to that of aspirin.
Science agrees that this alkaloid also has a variety of other pharmacologically important effects that can be used medically. However, research on this is currently insufficient.
In vitro, protopin was effective against human cancer cells. However, it has not yet been tested whether this also has real clinical effects.
Sanguinarine acts against pathogenic fungi, inflammation and slows down programmed cell death and cell growth. The Polish scientist Dariusz Kulus explained in a 2020 study that the plant had huge potential for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.
The following was discovered in a Canadian study back in 2007: Heart flower contains biochemical substances (butenolide, menisdaurilide and aquilegolide) that trigger programmed cell death in certain cancer cells.
A recent study from Poland compared the anti-cancer cell effects of isoquinoline alkaloids from various plants. Compared to the white feather poppy, which, like the heart flower, is a member of the poppy family, the anticancer effect of the extract from the heart flower was lower.
What characterizes the bleeding heart?
Heart flowers are perennials that grow bushy and reach a height of around 80 centimeters outdoors. Their shoots are typical because they hang in an arch shape.
During the flowering phase, around eight to twelve individual heart-shaped flowers form on them, which continue like drops: “Like a heart with a tear”. The plant’s leaves are pinnate and lobed.
Their color is a rich green. The foliage dies after the flowering phase and in winter the plant concentrates its vital substances in the roots.
Heart flower in myth
In Japan, folk legend tells that the heart flower got its flower shape through a tragic love. According to this, a loving young man first gave his beloved two rabbits, then a pair of shoes and finally a pair of earrings.
But the girl rejected the gifts and his love. The lovesick man stabbed himself in the heart.
The rabbits, shoes and earrings became the three pairs of petals. The reddish color of the flowers, however, comes from the blood of the unfortunate man.
The heart flower, also known as the bleeding heart, is an attractive ornamental plant in this country, but it is very poisonous and should be treated with caution. (Image: carmenrieb/stock.adobe.com)
When does the heart flower bloom?
The shoots with flowers form in April and May. These unfold from mid-May and the heart-shaped flowers appear until August.
Breeding forms of the Bleeding Heart were selected for a long flowering period and full flower splendor. Hybrids like “Candy Hearts” even bloom from March to October.
Does the heart flower need frost protection?
As a plant of Korea, northern China and the Russian Far East, bleeding heart generally does not need frost protection. As it is set for harsh and snowy winters.
However, a frost in early spring can also be dangerous for such temperate northern plants. Namely when they have previously started to sprout in mild temperatures.
That’s why they should be temporarily covered with fleece in spring. And always while there is still ground frost.
Fertilize Bleeding Heart
The bleeding heart readily accepts fertilizer in spring. Organic fertilizer is very suitable for this.
Mature garden compost accelerates the plant’s growth, and coffee grounds also promote development. If the soil is poor in nutrients, you can fertilize again in the fall.
Bleeding heart as a potted plant
Bleeding heart can also be cared for in a pot. However, this requires greater care than with outdoor plants.
On the one hand, the heart flower does not grow as tall in the pot as in the open bed and produces smaller flowers, sometimes even none at all. On the other hand, the pot must be large and deep.
In order to thrive, the heart flower relies on its rich root system. She needs space to develop this.
You also need to pay attention to the following with a potted plant: The bleeding heart does not tolerate waterlogging. A clay pot is a good idea here instead of using plastic.
Clay “breathes” and ensures a certain moisture balance. Clay pots drain moisture from the soil better than impermeable plastic.
A hole in the bottom through which the liquid can seep out is necessary and a saucer that is as deep as possible underneath. It is better to water the heart flower frequently, but with little water.
A heart flower in a pot is not winter-proof. It should overwinter in the house, stairwell or a greenhouse, not outdoors.
Are heart flowers insect friendly?
As an originally East Asian perennial, heart leaf is unsuitable for specialists among native insects. However, it does attract some insects.
The elongated flowers only allow insects with long trunks to reach the bottom of the flower. Bumblebees bite through the petals with their mouthparts and get the nectar.
The nectar itself should be consumed with caution by insects. In the Netherlands it was observed that bees died after consuming large amounts of nectar. (Dr Utz Anhalt)