1238 Dicentra cucullariaCommon Names: Dutchman's breeches Family: Fumariaceae (bleeding heart Family)
Dutchman’s breeches is an herbaceous perennial that comes up and flowers in early spring and then disappears by mid-summer. It grows in a compact clump around 6-10 in (15-25 cm) high and up to 10 in (25 cm) across. The leaves are deeply lobed or even fernlike, being dissected into linear leaflets. They remind me of Italian parsley leaves. The leaves all arise on long petioles from the base of the plant and are gray-green in color, and 4-10 in (10-25 cm) long. Flowers are mostly white (sometimes tinged with pink) and have yellow tips. They are about ¾ in (19 mm) long and borne in racemes, nodding on graceful arching stems above the leaves. The curiously shaped flowers are reminiscent of 19th century pantaloons, hanging upside down. They are made up of two outer inflated petals and two inner protruding petals, and they are, at best, only mildly fragrant.
Dicentra cucullaria is native to eastern North America from Nova Scotia west to Kansas and Missouri and south to northern Georgia. Apparently there is a disjunct population in the Pacific Northwest, although some botanists believe it to be a different species. Dutchman’s breeches grows on the leafy forest floor in rich hardwood forests, and is partial to mountain valleys, ravines and streamside ledges.
Light: Dutchman’s breeches grows in shady to semi-shady woodland sites and cannot tolerate full sun. The warmer the climate, the more summertime shade they should get. They are at their best in the dappled sunlight beneath deciduous hardwoods. Moisture: This little woodland nymph needs a moist, humus rich soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline reaction. They cannot tolerate a soil that stays wet or a sandy soil that dries out completely. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 8. Dutchman’s breeches comes up early in spring and can withstand moderate frosts. Propagation: In a favorable site, Dutchman’s breeches will self-seed. The tuberous roots can be divided to produce more plants. Wait until after flowering to do this.
Dutchman’s breeches is a subdued little elfin on the woodland floor, but charming nonetheless. The foliage and the flowers are both attractive. Dutchman’s breeches, along with other spring ephemerals, can turn a shady edge of your yard into a miniature wonderland of unassuming native wildflowers. Plant Dutchman’s breeches under some deciduous trees and let them slowly expand into gentle drifts. Since they die back quickly after spring flowering, Dutchman’s breeches will not miss the sun that the deciduous trees capture during the summer.
There are some 20 species of Dicentra, native to North America or Asia. The popular garden perennial, bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is a related and similar (although much larger) plant that has pink flowers and hails from Asia.
Dutchman’s breeches is pollinated by long-tongued bumblebees and mason bees. Honey bees and various butterflies and skippers visit the flowers but are not effective pollinators. The seeds have oily, fleshy extensions called elaisomes. Ants carry the seeds to their nests, eat the elaisomes, then discard the still-viable seeds some distance from the mother plant. In this way Dutchman’s breeches get ants to do their bidding and grow the population.
Apparently Dutchman’s breeches are not good to eat, and may cause stomach upset if ingested. Even herbivorous mammals don’t eat the foliage. Some people are allergic to the foliage and contract a mild dermatitis from exposure.
Steve Christman 4/8/15