Medicinal uses of Bleeding Hearts June 05 2015
Dicentra formosa - Pacific Bleeding Heart
The sweet little sprays of pinkish to purple flowers in the shape of hearts beg the sound of Awww to exit ones lips upon encountering a bleeding heart. The flowers are incredibly fragrant. The roots (or rather rhizomes) have a strong bitter and slightly acrid flavor that are most commonly used for pain relieving effects. Medicinally, this one is classified as a Narcotic Analgesic. Otherwise known as a mind altering/sedative and pain numbing remedy.
The entire plant is a soft, juicy perennial that stems from these slender brittle rhizomes. It typically grows in loose moist forest soil and can easily be dug with nothing but your hands. The rhizomes are succulent, new growth is bright pink, and resembles something slightly worm shaped. Native peoples used this root to heal weakness and depletion from intestinal worms. This indicates that bleeding hearts have a rejuvenating and strengthening quality. Interesting that the rhizomes are these long skinny pinkish white worm shaped things. These visual indicators of medicinal properties are often noted as a Doctrine of Signatures in botanical structure.
More interestingly, there is a history of this plant medicine being used to strengthen those with long standing syphilis. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted set of disease symptoms that stem from a spiraling worm shaped bacteria (called a spirochete) that wiggles through the tissues of the body leading to a number of horrible symptoms including great fatigue, joint and skin pain, mental disorders and depression. The Borrelia bacteria in Lyme disease is a modern cousin to syphilis. Both of these diseases are referred to as ‘the great imitator’ as they mimic so many other chronic illnesses and are both difficult to diagnose and to treat. I think of these as kinds of bacteria as worms also.
Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest referred to bleeding heart root as "toothache medicine". Without a doubt chewing on the rhizomes has a numbing effect on the surface of the gums, inner cheeks and tongue. Obviously it won’t replace a dentist, but it will (as the famous herbalist, Michael Moore, puts it) keep you sane until you get the appointment. Dicentra means ‘two spurs’ in reference to the little spurs on the two outer petals. Formosa means ‘beautiful or handsome,’ which it is.
This is my favorite plant medicine for pain and for those moments of debilitating depression. It is also very helpful for those with chronic illness conditions by offering some relief of pain as well as uplifting a weakened constitution. As its name suggests, it is also a wonderful ally for easing the wounds of broken heart, which can most certainly be felt as physical pain. Eating a four to six inch length of the fresh rhizome has a euphoric effect on the mind and deeply relaxes nervous tension. It will also numb up your entire mouth. That numbing sensation is why some declare this herb as toxic. I have tried to eat enough of it to make myself sick, just to test that theory out, and alas all one ends up with is feeling very high, with that dopey narcotic effect. This tends to prevent one from continued dosing, which is probably a natural safe guard from eating too much. It seems to work on neurological functions throughout the central nervous system, and I have had good results with this plant in use with fibromyalgia like pains. Not too many herbs qualify as pain reducers and this one is fairly reliable.
I like to make fresh tincture of the rhizomes and the flowers combined (1:2 plant to liquid ratio) in about 70% alcohol. One dropper full will certainly change a stressed out or grumpy outlook on life. Up to three droppers full is sufficient to stop a screaming painful fit. This plant is not recommended to be used in pregnancy or with severe neurological disorders. Harvest this plant respectfully as large stands of it are difficult to find in the wild, although it can be cultivated quite easily. There are other varieties of bleeding hearts in the eastern US and native to Siberia, Korea, Japan and Northern China of different genus and species. However, all of these bleeding heart varieties are of the poppy family.
*These notes are compiled from the references of Michael Moore’s book ‘Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West’, Pojar and Mackinnon’s text ‘Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, various Enthobotanical resources, along with my own personal experience.