Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) is a shade-seeking, moisture-loving plant with palm-shaped, fernlike leaves, a long, succulent root, and delicate stems that bear rows of distinctive ¾ inch, inflated, heart-shaped flowers. There are several species of Dicentra, but many of them possess corms or tubers that aren't as readily accessible as the shallow rhizome produced by D. formosa. This rhizome contains an array of isoquinolone alkaloids – dicentrine, protopine, bulbocapnine, corydine, and isocorydine – several of which exhibit narcotic properties.
Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest have used bleeding heart for generations as a remedy for toothache and other types of pain. In years past, bleeding heart was widely employed for treating syphilis. Michael Moore, author of Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, reports that a tincture of bleeding heart’s leaves or rhizome, when taken internally, helps calm frazzled nerves. When applied externally and covered with a moist, warm compress, it eases the pain of sprains, strains, and contusions. A few drops of the tincture on a cotton ball might just tide you over to the dental appointment you put off until that abscessed tusk finally erupted in your jaw.
Bleeding heart tincture can be prepared from the fresh or dried rhizome or from dried aerial parts. For internal use, take 10 to 20 drops of fresh root tincture, 15 to 30 drops of dried root tincture, or 30 to 50 drops of dried herb tincture up to three times daily. For external uses, apply as needed.
Pregnant or nursing mothers and individuals with liver disease should not take bleeding heart internally. If you use prescription medications, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking bleeding heart.
If you have to donate a urine sample to your employer from time to time, keep in mind that bleeding heart’s alkaloids can trigger a false positive opioid drug screen.
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Lewis WH, Elvin-Lewis MPF. Medical botany: plants affecting human health. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2003:429
Moerman DE. Native American ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press, Inc.; 1998
Moore M. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books; 1993:81-82