Meet Your Neighbors
Plants Wearing Pants
Photo: Michael Redmer
In April or early May in a sun-dappled woodland, you may come across one of the Chicago regions most striking spring ephemeral wildflowers, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). Its pairs of creamy, waxy flowers rise on bare stalks above a rosette of finely segmented leaves. The flowers hang like tiny pantaloons — nature’s laundry hung out to dry.
The genus name, Dicentra, means “two-spurred,” referring to the two inflated “legs” of the breeches. The species name, cucullaria, means “hooded,” referring to the way the outer petals conceal the inner part of the flower. The blue-green leaves have a delicate fernlike appearance, making the plant easy to spot even before it blooms.
Dutchman’s breeches grow on rich soils in moist woodlands throughout much of eastern North America, though one disjunct population, separated from the eastern population for at least a thousand years, inhabits the Pacific Northwest. Dutchman’s breeches are quite often found in moderately rich woodlands, growing with plants such as wild leek, bloodroot, and false rue anemone under maple, ash, and red oak. They are closely related to the less common squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis), which resembles Dutchman’s except that its flower spurs appear to form a heart, while the spurs on the Dutchman’s, clearly separated into a v, evoke pants.
Just as Dutchman’s breeches begin to bloom, bumblebee queens, the plant’s earliest pollinator, emerge from hibernation. The distinct yellow tip on each outer flower, which strongly reflects ultraviolet light, draws many types of bees to the plant. But, according to Chicago Botanic Garden ecologist James Steffen, only the muscular bumblebee can open the outer petals far enough to reach the nectar. In addition, only insects with long proboscises can reach the deeply recessed nectar spurs. (Shorter-tongued, weaker insects, not wishing to miss out on the fun, sometimes chew holes in the petals to reach the nectar. From the plant’s point of view, this is just a waste of good pollen, as it rarely gets distributed to other Dutchman’s.) Steffen points out that Dutchman’s breeches grow not in large patches like many other spring ephemerals but rather as more isolated individuals. The flowers need a pollinator that flies fairly long distances to visit multiple plants.
Photo: Joe Nowak
Dutchman’s breeches next form elongated seed capsules with tapered ends. Each seed has a fatty appendage, an elaisome, treasured by ants. The ants drag the seeds to their nests, eat the elaisomes, and then haul the seeds out to their trash heaps. This disperses the seed from the parent plant and deposits it into a kind of compost pile, a place with rich nutrients and insulation. However, Dutchman’s breeches often spread by sending out roots — less glamorous than the seeds’ saga but more reliable.
Among the other common names for both Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn is “staggerweed.” If cattle eat the plants, they can develop symptoms that include a staggering gait, since both species contain toxic, morphine-like substances. But, according to Purdue University, “Death with Dicentra poisoning is rare, and animals tend to recover on their own in a few hours after they are removed from the plant.” The plant also appears to affect horses and sheep (and, presumably, deer).
Many gardeners already know and love the cultivated bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), another relative of Dutchman’s breeches. But the wild cousin also can be successfully cultivated in a shady garden. Dutchman’s breeches can lend a more subtle aesthetic effect — a bit like the difference between colored and white holiday lights. To grow them from existing plants (from nurseries or a friend’s garden only), divide the roots in the spring or take root cuttings in early summer, just as the leaves are dying back. Or sow seeds into flats or prepared seedbeds in midsummer.
Dutchman’s breeches are truly ephemeral. Once the hot days of summer arrive, they die back to the roots, leaving almost no trace above ground.
— Barbara Hill