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Dutchman’s Breeches: An Early Spring Bloomer

15 Mar 2021 1:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

Dutchmans Breeches

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are an early blooming spring perennial that flourishes on the forest floor throughout the United States. Its white to pink blooms appear in March, and are little puffed flowers that hang from a stalk emerging from a low, tight clump of gray-green leaves. Dicentra cucullaria is a native woodland flower hardy in US zones 3 to 7.

Facts about Dutchman’s Breeches:

Scientific Name : Dicentra cucullaria
Variety, cultivar, or trademark name  Dutchman’s Breeches
Bloom Time? Color?:  March blooming with white, yellow tipped flowers
Type or Average Life Span:  spring perennial
Height:  0.5 to 1 foot
Width/Spread:  0.5 to 1 foot

Dutchman’s Breeches Symbiotic relationships:

One of the most unusual and charming native woodland flowers, Dutchman’s breeches blooms in very early spring, lives aboveground for a few weeks then disappears until the following year. Underground portions live on, of course, storing the carbohydrates manufactured by the leaves during the brief period before the trees leaf out and block the sun from the forest floor.

Why the common name of Dutchman’s breeches?

When the fragrant flowers open, they resemble a clothesline strung with several pairs of white pantaloons, a garment worn in Holland many years ago. Flowers dangle over ten-inch, fernlike foliage that is attractive in itself.

Besides being beautiful, however, Dutchman’s breeches benefits early-flying bumblebees on the lookout for nectar. The queen bumblebee, the only one to survive the winter, visits the flower, sips the nectar, and collects pollen—then returns to her nest to lay eggs. In this way, bee and flower benefit one another. Indeed, the two species co-evolved to satisfy each other’s needs—an early source of food for the bee and a means of pollination for the flower.

Seed Dispersal:

Dutchman’s breeches has an unusual method of seed dispersal. When the seeds fall to the ground, ants remove them to their nest. Attached to each seed is a fleshy appendage called an elaiosome, which is oily and nutrient-rich. Once the ants consume the elaiosome they remove the seed to their refuse piles—where the seeds proceed to develop for the next year. Having the seeds dispersed at some distance from the parent plant is a means of ensuring continuation of the species should anything destroy the original planting.

Good things to know about Dicentra cucullaria:

Although Dutchman’s breeches is truly enchanting, there are a few caveats to be aware of.

  1. Plant will survive only if given moist, shaded or semi-shaded conditions that mimic the forest floor. In this favorable environment, it can spread by seeds or underground tubers to cover a considerable area, so allow plenty of space–or plan to divide as needed.
  2. Wear gloves when handling it, as the plant causes minor skin irritation when touched; this lasts only for a few minutes, but people with sensitive skin should beware. If ingested—not recommended!—people (and livestock) have experienced trembling, staggering, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, labored breathing—or some combination. However, it is toxic only in large quantities.
  3. A final caveat: once the plant dies back, it leaves a bare space that needs to be covered with something else, so plan accordingly.

If Dutchman’s breeches reminds you of bleeding heart, it’s because they’re both Dicentra; foliage is similar and flowers recall one another. But whereas bleeding heart usually retains its foliage throughout the season, dutchman’s breeches dies back not long after setting seeds. Both are lovely spring bloomers that tell us winter is over!

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