This spring, I was able to photograph two wildflowers – Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra Cucullaria) and Squirrel Corn (Dicentra Canadensis) – that are closely related to the Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra Spectabilis) I photographed at Brookside Gardens.
The first set of Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra Cucullaria) I found were at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC. There were several Dutchman’s Breeches plants in the Fern Valley area of the Arboretum.
(c) 2008 Patty Hankins
The plant gets its name from the flowers, which look like men’s pants hanging upside down from a laundry line.
(c) 2008 Patty Hankins
About a week later, I was at Great Falls National Park in Virginia. On the path heading down to the water between the second and third overlook, I found some Dutchman’s Breeches growing along the side of the trail.
(c) 2008 Patty Hankins
Dutchman’s Breeches are a native plant growing in both woods and in clearings. The plants grow to about 12″ tall, with spurred heart/triangle shaped petals about 5/8″ of an inch in size. The petals grow in groups of 4 to 12 hanging from the raceme. They usually bloom in April and May.
(c) 2008 Patty Hankins
When I was in Tennessee for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I was able to photograph some Squirrel Corn (Dicentra Candadensis). The Squirrel Corn I saw was along the Cove Hardwood Trail, which begins at the parking lot of the Chimneys Picnic Area.
(c) 2008 Patty Hankins
Like Dutchman’s Breeches, Squirrel Corn grows to about 12″ tall and blooms in April and May. The flowers are about 1/2″ long, heart/oval shaped growing in clusters on the raceme. The plant gets its name from the corms (underground plant stems) – which are shaped like sweet corn kernels. Apparently squirrels like to dig up the corms and eat them.
I’ve really enjoyed photographing the wildflowers this year – and discovering which of the wildflowers are related to one another and to some of flowers being cultivated in gardens.
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Many white waxy flowers consisting of 4 petals with 2 upward facing spurs. The tips of each flower are pinkish-yellow color.
Tubular shaped pod that splits down the side.
Dark green fringed leaves attached to the stem below the blossoms. The leaves appear soft and feathery.
Boys and Girls, Butterfly Banne, Colicweed, Eardrops, Flyflower, Monk’s Head, Soldier’s Cap, Staggerweed, White Hearts
Established Plant Colonies in Norway Valley
Family: Fumitory (Fumariaceae)
Height: To 12” (30 cm)
Flowering: April – May
Habitat: Deciduous, Densely Wooded Areas
Toxicity: Caution Recommended
It is clear to the observer how this wildflower earned its name. “Dutchman’s Breeches” refers to the shape of the unusual flowers produced by this plant. Though breech refers to the buttocks, Dutchman’s Pants, is a more fitting description. The “pantaloons” are actually a composite of four petals. Two petals fold upward to form the pant legs and the other petals are neatly tucked inside protruding over the stamen.
The scientific name is far less creative. Dicentra and cucullaria are derived from Greek words meaning “two spurred” and “hooded” which describe the shape of the flower.
Boys and Girls: Dutchman’s Breeches and another similarly shaped species, Squirrel Corn (D. canadensis), tend to be found together. Because Squirrel Corn is pink and yellow, together the pair resembles young playmates.
Colicweed: Suggests that the plant was once used to treat colic.
Eardrops: The way that the flowers dangle from the stem resembles women’s earrings.
Staggerweed: Refers to the plant’s effect on grazing cattle. Dutchman’s Breeches is somewhat toxic. Cows suffer convulsions and even death from overindulging on the leaves of this species.
Like Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) , the spurs of the Dutchman’s flower contains nectar which attracts bees that also aid in pollination. The sweet nectar is difficult to reach for most insects. Only those bees with the proper equipment are able to reach the nectar inside. Early spring bumblebees with roughly eight-millimeter long proboscises are able to collect the nectar and pollinate the flower. The six-millimeter proboscis of the honeybee, however, is too short. Instead, honeybees collect pollen with their front feet in a vain effort to tap the nectar.
The unique shape of the Dutchman’s flower serves many important purposes for the plant. The pollen, which is sealed within the upside-down blossom, is protected from both wind and rain. The design also prevents insect invaders from stealing the nectar without repaying the flower in pollination. Some insects including wasps and carpenter bees have bypassed this system by chewing holes in the spurs, thereby robbing the plant of its nectar.
The seeds of the plant are dispersed by ants in a process called myrmecochory.The elaiosome, a fleshy organ of the seeds, attracts the ants. Ants retrieve the seeds and bring them to their nests where they eat the elaiosome and discard the remains. This serves three important purposes for the plant. The seeds are dispersed to many areas, protected in the ant nest until germination, and will likely grow in a rich medium created by the ant nest debris.
Unlike many wildflowers, Dutchman’s Breeches has few practical purposes owing to its toxicity. The plant produces isoquinoline alkaloids including aporphine and protopine which are central nervous system depressants. Consuming any parts of the plant can cause paralysis and tremors.
Root and leaf poisoning is common in grazing livestock. Animals that feed on this species will begin to tremble. A characteristic staggered gait will follow. Poisoning culminates in severe convulsions, frothing mouth, and ejection of partially digested stomach contents.
Though it is noxious, early Native Americans experimented with the plant in search of medical remedies. The Iroquois used parts of the leaf as a skin ointment for rashes. Other tribes used a root-infused tea as a diuretic. Beyond these purposes however, Dutchman’s Breeches has not been and should not be used in medical treatments.
One of the constituents produced by Dutchman’s Breeches is a poppy-like hallucinogen. This lent itself to many unusual customs including its use by the Menominees of upper Michigan and Wisconsin as a love charm. The Menominees believed that if they chewed the roots of the plant they would breathe out a perfume necessary for attracting women. If the woman would inhale the scent she would become entranced even against her will and follow the man.
Every spring in northeastern Ohio you can count on a great parade of wildflowers. You wonder how these beautiful plants got such strange names: squirrel corn, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, trout lily, skunk cabbage, and the list goes on. The early spring wildflowers start blooming in March, sometimes when the snow is still on the ground and some of them will still be blooming into the middle of May.
Many early spring woodland wildflowers use energy that had been stored in underground stems or bulbs to produce new leaves and flowers in the spring. They need to get their leaves unfolded and capture a large amount of solar energy by photosynthesis before they are hidden by the leaves of the forest canopy trees that will shade them by mid May.
One of the most unusual spring wildflowers in our area is Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria pronounced Die-cent-rah cue-cue-lair-ee-ah). The flower blooms in late April and the strange shape of the flower gives the plant its name. The flower has two parts that, with imagination, look similar to the legs of breeches or pants worn by Europeans, including Dutch folk, several centuries ago.
Dutchmen’s breeches are in the same genus (Dicentra) as bleeding heart, the popular garden perennial. The flowers of Dicentra are notable because they have two petals that are modified into tubular pouches called spurs. In fact the name Dicentra means two spurs. The flowers of Dutchman’s breeches are very similar to those of bleeding heart, but are smaller and white and yellow rather than pink and white. Another spring wildflower in the genus is squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis). Squirrel corn has a flower very similar flower to those of Dutchman’s breeches but the tops of the spurs are rounder, giving the flower a more heart-shaped appearance.
Honeybees cannot readily pollinate Dutchman’s breeches; to do so they must chew a hole in the flower. The nectar is deep within the closed flower and the honeybee’s tongue is too short to reach the nectar. Bumblebees have longer tongue and are thus the major pollinator. It is interesting that prior to European colonization, there were no honeybees in North America and bumble bees did most of the pollination.
All parts of Dutchman’s breeches are toxic if eaten and some people can get a skin rash from simply touching the plant. Historically the plant was used medicinally because it contains a large number of alkaloids and related chemicals. Alkaloids are nitrogen containing chemicals similar to caffeine and nicotine that generally serve to protect the plant from being eaten. Some Native Americans used the plant to treat skin disorders and early American folklore sometime recommended the plant be used for treating syphilis.
Dutchmen’s breeches are among a small group of plants that are dispersed by ants. Their seeds have a special structure that is rich in oil. Ants take the seed with the oil-rich structure from the plant back to their nest where the oil bodies are fed to the larvae. The seeds themselves are not eaten but, after the oil bodies are eaten, they are taken by the ants to their refuse pile where they germinate and do well in the loose soil of the ant colony.
If you hurry you still have time to find this lovely little plant blooming in the forests of northeastern Ohio. By mid-May you may have missed the show, but don’t worry, because it has been returning every spring for a very long time.
For more information:
Native plant information network (NPIN) Webpage. Dicentra cucullaria.
National Park Service. Shenandoah National Park. Dutchmans breeches webpage.
My favorite wildflower field guide: Newcomb, Laurence. 1989. Newcomb’s Wildflower guide: an ingenious new key system for quick, positive field identification of the wildflowers, flowering shrubs and vines of Northeastern and North Central North America. Boston: Little, Brown.
Description: This herbaceous perennial plant develops 1-2 compound basal leaves during the spring. The blades of these leaves are 3-7″ long and 3-7″ across; they are ascending to more or less parallel with the ground. Each leaf blade is divided into 3 leaflets (1 terminal & 2 lateral leaflets). In less developed leaves, the leaflets are pinnate-pinnatifid, ultimately dividing into narrow parallel lobes. However, in more developed leaves, each leaflet divides into 3 subleaflets, and these subleaflets are pinnate-pinnatifid, ultimately dividing into narrow lobes. The ultimate lobes of these leaves are ¼–½” long and about 3 mm. (1/8″) across; they are linear, linear-elliptic, or linear-oblanceolate in shape with entire (toothless) margins and bluntly acute tips. The upper leaf surface is grayish green to medium green, glabrous, and sometimes slightly glaucous, while the lower leaf surface is white to greenish white, glabrous, and very glaucous. For each compound leaf, the petiolule (basal stalklet) of the terminal leaflet is longer than those of the 2 lateral leaflets. The petioles of the compound leaves are 3-6″ long and ascending; they are pale red to pale reddish green, terete, glabrous, and often glaucous.
An inflorescence consisting of a raceme of flowers sometimes develops shortly after the formation of basal leaves. This inflorescence is 6-12″ tall and it is either erect or ascending. The peduncle (basal stalk) of the inflorescence is pale red or pale yellowish green, terete, glabrous, and glaucous. Each raceme has 3-10 pendant flowers. The corolla of the pendant flower is ½–¾” long, mostly white, narrowly obcordoid in shape, and somewhat flattened. Two fused outer petals form the rounded nectar spurs (above), the lateral sides, and the pair of of upturned lips (below) of the corolla. Two fused inner petals form a pair of transverse crests and a pair of small inner claws near the entrance of the corolla. The small lips are shaped like keeled hoods with translucent parallel veins. The flat crests are half-cordate in shape, slightly wrinkled, slightly undulate, and white; sometimes they are pinkish along their bases. Inserted within the corolla is a pistil with a single style and several stamens. There are also a pair of tiny sepals; they are about 2-3 mm. long, linear-lanceolate in shape, and light pink with whitish margins. The nodding pedicels of the flowers are pale green or pale reddish green, terete, glabrous, and sometimes glaucous; they are up to ¼” long. At the bases of these pedicels, there are solitary floral bracts about 3-5 mm. long; they are ovate to obovate in shape and light pink with whitish margins.
The blooming period occurs during mid-spring for about 2-3 weeks. The flowers have a sweet fragrance. Afterwards, fertile flowers are replaced by drooping seed capsules that become about 12 mm. (½”) long at maturity; these capsules are ovoid in shape and somewhat flattened. Each capsule divides into 2 parts to release its seeds; there are several seeds per capsule. The seeds are 1-2 mm. long, short-reniform in shape, and obscurely reticulate; each seed has an attached elaiosome (food appendage). The foliage dies down by mid-summer. The root system consists of a cluster of yellow globoid corms and fibrous roots.
Cultivation: The preference is dappled sunlight to medium shade, mesic conditions, and a loose loamy soil with decaying organic matter. Growth and development occur during the spring. Germination of the seeds can be slow and difficult, although it may be possible to start new plants by separating some of the corms. Insects and disease organisms are rarely troublesome.
Range & Habitat: The native Squirrel Corn occurs primarily in NE, east-central, and the southern tip of Illinois, where it is uncommon (see Distribution Map). Illinois lies toward the western range limit of this species; it is more common further to the east. Habitats include mesic deciduous woodlands, wooded bluffs, wooded slopes, ravines, and shaded stream banks. Squirrel Corn is found in high quality woodlands in Illinois, where the native ground flora is intact. It is one of the spring wildflowers that is threatened by the invasion of Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and some Eurasian shrubs, particularly Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii).
Faunal Associations: The flowers are cross-pollinated primarily by queen bumblebees. Both nectar and pollen are available as floral rewards. The seeds are distributed to some extent by ants because of their elaisomes (food appendages). Because the foliage is toxic, it is usually avoided by mammalian herbivores. The overall value of this plant to faunal wildlife is low.
Photographic Location: A deciduous woodland at Jim Smith’s farm in Vermilion County, Illinois.
Comments: This is another wonderful spring wildflower that can be found in eastern deciduous woodlands. Both the foliage and flowers of Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) are similar in appearance to those of Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). Both of these species are found in similar habitats and their blooming periods overlap (Squirrel Corn begins to bloom about 1 week later). However, Dutchman’s Breeches is by far the more common wildflower in Illinois. The flowers of Squirrel Corn have short rounded nectar spurs, while those of Dutch’s Breeches are longer and more narrow. The basal leaves of these two species are very difficult to distinguish, although those of Squirrel Corn appear to have slightly longer ultimate lobes on average. The corms of these two species are also different in appearance: the corms of Squirrel Corn are yellow and globoid in shape, while the corms of Dutchman’s Breeches are pink and more ovoid in shape.
Common Name: Dutchman’s Breeches, Staggerweed, Blue staggers, Soldier cap, Fairy candles, Eardrops, Monk’s head, Butterfly banners, Bachelor’s breeches, Little boys’ breeches – The various references to types of breeches refer to the shape of the flower that has the appearance of a pair of baggy pantaloons that are inverted (above).
Squirrel Corn, Turkey pea, White heart, Bleeding heart, Colicweed, Ghost corn, Indian potato, Wild hyacinth – The root structure consists of yellow nodules that look like kernels of corn, often eaten by squirrels.
The root structure consists of yellow nodules that look like kernels of corn, often eaten by squirrels.
Scientific Name: Dicentra cucullaria – The generic name is from the Greek kentron, meaning point with the prefix di- signifying two, referring to the two points or spurs of the flowers (the legs of the breeches). The species name is from the Latin cucullus, which means a hood or cowl, the shape of the flower; cucullate means shaped like a hood. The Squirrel corn species is D. canadensis, a Latinized form of “from Canada.”
Potpourri: Members of the Dicentra genus contain isoquinolines, which are associated with the quinolines in coal tar and serve as the parent structure of many alkaloids; of particular interest are aporphine, from which morphine is derived, and protopine, which is found in opium poppies. These alkaloids impart toxicity to the plants that are manifested as depressants to the central nervous system; symptoms range from tremors and labored breathing to paralysis and death. Grazing animals such as cattle and horses that consume the leaves are stricken initially by a staggering gait that can degenerate into frothing of the mouth, vomiting, and convulsions. The common names Staggerweed, Colicweed and Blue staggers are mnemonics for the rancher to restrict grazing animals from areas where members of the Dicentra genus would be likely to grow. Exposure to the plants can result in contact dermatitis can result in some people.
As is the case with many wild plants, toxic alkaloids can be used effectively as medication if taken in moderation. Native Americans applied a poultice made from the leaves of Dutchman’s breeches to treat skin disorders and used the roots to make a tea that was both diuretic (inducing urination) and sweat-inducing (to rid the body of onerous vapors). The Haudenosaunee Indians (more commonly known as the Iroquois) used a liniment made from the leaves to apply to the legs of small children to strengthen their leg muscles for running. It is not known if they initiated this practice due to the fact that the bifurcated flowers looked like two legs, as would be the case if the Doctrine of Signatures were applied.
Though Dutchman’s breeches and Squirrel corn are very similar, they can be readily distinguished by the shape of the flowers, the latter having more the shape of a white heart than the elongated shape of leggings. The common name white heart is apt. It is perhaps because of this that D. canadensis was of great importance to the Menomini Indians as a love charm. A young man would either throw the flowers at his intended or, alternatively, chew the roots of the plant. His breath, thus perfumed, was expelled as he circled his beloved, causing her to follow him anywhere from that time forward.
Squirrel Corn has the shape of a white heart than the elongated shape of leggings
Squirrel corn and Dutchman’s breeches were among the favored medications of a group known as the eclectic practitioners that achieved some prominence for their pharmacy in the 19th Century. They employed “simple and compound syrups, tinctures, acetates, juices of plants both fresh and dried,” and introduced the use of several important indigenous herbal remedies, such as alkaloids, into the American pharmacopoeia. In the book King’s American Dispensary, Dr. John King proffers that “in all syphilitic affections, it (D. canadensis) is an excellent tonic and alternative; and will likewise be found valuable in scrofula.” Traditional physicians, though predominantly critical of the mostly fallacious alkaloid products, promoted the efficacy of the Dicentra genus. In The Physiomedical Dispensatory, Dr. William Cook noted that “it stimulates the salivary glands, fauces (throat or gullet), and stomach; and gives a feeling of warmth and excitement to the stomach and the whole system … and is among the most valuable agents of its class for secondary syphilis, where it is most generally prized; and is an excellent combining agent to give intensity to relaxants in the treatment of scrofula and scrofulous ulcers, white swellings, herpetic eruptions, and chronic rheumatism.” His conclusion that it “leaves behind a good tonic influence” lends credence to the use of Dicentra plant extracts as tonic elixirs.
Dutchman’s breeches plants have a symbiotic relationship with insects in two very important aspects of reproduction that contribute to their success as ephemeral wild flowers: pollination and seed dispersal. For dioecious species, fertilization depends on the movement of pollen from the stamen of one plant to the pistil of another. Because of the deep recesses of the Dutchman’s breeches blossom compared to other flowers, it is nearly impossible for most pollinators to reach the nectar. However, the proboscises of bumblebees are of sufficient length; in collecting the nectar, they are the primary pollinator of D. cucullaria. Other insects including the smaller honeybees must penetrate the bottom of the flower, creating a hole from which to extract the nectar. The flowers pollinated by the bumblebees produce seeds that require dispersal for subsequent germination. This is accomplished by ants, a process called myrmecochory. Like the trillium, the seeds of Dutchman’s breeches contain elaisome, a fatty substance that is one of the favorite foods of ants. The seeds are taken to the ant nest where the elaisomes are consumed; the seed left to germinate, appropriately buried in rich, aerated soil.
The most familiar flower of the Dicentra genus is the bleeding heart (D. spectabilis – now Lamprocapnos spectabilis ), having bright pink heart-shaped blossoms
The most familiar flower of the Dicentra genus is the bleeding heart (D. eximia), having bright pink heart-shaped blossoms. Indigenous to Asia, it was imported to Great Britain in 1847 where it was a huge success, its unique flowers gracing English gardens. It was brought to North America by early colonists, who dispersed it along their path as they gradually migrated west. A more striking variant of the bleeding heart is the cultivar D. spectabilis that is an Asian species frequently found in domestic gardens.
Plant of the Week
Range map of the Dutchman’s breeches. States are colored green where the species may be found.
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria (L.) Bernh.)
By Alma Hanson
Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches) is an herbaceous perennial of the Fumariaceae family. This species has many common names depending on which part of the country you come from. One of its common names, Little Blue Staggers, is derived from its ability to induce drunken staggering if cattle graze on it, due to narcotic and toxic substances in the poppy-related genus. Bleeding heart is another common name.
This native wildflower is common throughout the eastern United States though rarer in the Pacific Northwest. The western populations of Dicentra cucullaria appear to have been separated from the eastern ones for at least one thousand years according to the Flora of North America. The western plants are somewhat coarser in appearance but generally indistinguishable from their eastern counterparts. In Idaho, the species often grows along stream corridors in gravely banks well above the waterline. It is also occurs in Washington and Oregon.
Dutchman’s Breeches blooms in the early spring from March to April. Flowers are white to pink and resemble a pair of pantaloons hanging upside down. The flowers wilt almost immediately upon picking so they should not be collected in the wild. The one or more finely compound leaves make the plant appear fern-like. This perennial species has rice-like seed bulbs and is an attractive addition to any garden in moist shady areas.
For More Information
PLANTS Profile – Dicentra cucullaria, Dutchman’s breeches
Dutchman’s Breeches: Pantaloons Fit for a Queen
Posted in Science on April 12 2013, by Carol Gracie
After spending nearly three decades at the NYBG, and working much of that time in South American rainforests with her husband, Scott A. Mori, Carol Gracie has returned to one of her first botanical interests in retirement–local wildflowers. She is the author of Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History and coauthor (with Steve Clemants) of Wildflowers in the Field and Forest: A Field Guide to the Northeastern United States.
In the early spring wildflower parade, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) follow closely on the heels of hepatica, blooming by mid-April. Dutchman’s breeches are one of the true spring ephemerals, plants that complete their entire above-ground life cycle within a period of only a few weeks and then disappear until the following spring. Of course, the underground portions live on, storing the carbohydrates manufactured by the leaves during the brief period before the trees have leafed out and shaded the forest floor. But spring ephemerals are not roadside plants.
To see most of our native ephemerals requires a pleasant walk in the woods. Ephemerals are plants that have evolved to live in the primeval conditions of Eastern North America—a land once covered by forest. They must take advantage of the short period of year when temperatures are warm enough and sunlight sufficient enough on the forest floor for the plant to accomplish three tasks: food production, reproduction, and storage of carbohydrates for the subsequent year’s growth.
The flowers of Dutchman’s breeches are arranged along a pink stalk like a clothesline hung with tiny white pantaloons.
The origin of the common name of Dutchman’s breeches is obvious when the plant is in flower. The inflorescence looks like a pink clothesline hung with several pairs of white pantaloons, the type worn in Holland many years ago. The unique structure of the flowers leads one to wonder what pollinates them. With nectar stored at the very tip of the elongated spur petals (the pantaloons), the insect must have a long proboscis in order to reach it, and it must be able to fly in the cool temperatures of April. Bumblebees, with their fuzzy coats, are well suited for flying at cool temperatures, and they are attracted to flowers with contrasting colors or patterns.
In early spring, queen bumblebees (Bombus spp.), are active—busily seeking both pollen and nectar to begin new colonies. Only queen bees survive the winter; all others of her species die off over the course of the previous autumn. The queen, who was fertilized in the previous year, spends the winter in a sheltered spot, and in spring must find a suitable place to begin a nest; nectar to satisfy her energy requirements; and pollen to provision the nest for the next generation. Once all of this has been accomplished, the queen begins to lay eggs. The two species, flower and bee, have co-evolved to satisfy each other’s needs—an early source of food for the bee and pollination for the flower.
Dutchman’s breeches has an interesting method of seed dispersal as well, one shared by many other spring ephemerals. When the tiny (2 mm) seeds fall to the ground, they are rapidly removed by ants. The seeds are hard and shiny, but attached to each is a fleshy white appendage, called an elaiosome, that the ants can grasp in their mandibles.
It is this oil-filled, nutrient-rich body that the ants are attracted to. They carry the seeds back to their nest where they consume the elaiosome and cast out the seed in their refuse piles. Thus, the seeds are dispersed at some distance from the parent plant into an area that might be suitable for growth—an advantage should anything destroy the original population. Some other spring ephemerals that utilize this same dispersal system are bloodroot, trillium, violets, and spring beauty. Violets and spring beauties first fling their seeds from the capsules by the ballistics of the explosive seedpod.
Read about nectar robbers and other curious facts of Dutchman’s breeches life in my book, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History, available at Shop in the Garden. Dutchman’s breeches may be seen in the new Native Plant Garden during the Grand Opening Weekend, May 3–5, 2013.