Species of the Week
Number 34 --
April 2, 2007

In the Species of the Week feature of the Wildwood Web we took a close look at one of the species that lives in Wildwood.  To see the earlier featured species check the Species of the Week archives.


Dutchman's Breeches

Dicentra cucullaria

Dutchman's breeches are one of the oddest-shaped flowers in Wildwood.  Each plant bears clusters of three to fourteen flowers which are very roughly heart-shaped.  The upper spurs, however, are long and inflated.  Lined up and dangling from the flower stalk, they resemble a line of old-fashioned pantaloons hung out to dry.  They remind me of when I took a class in life-saving in college and had to remove my pants and trap air inside them to make a flotation device, all while treading water.  The fused petals of these flowers are usually white, sometimes pinkish, with a yellow or yellow-orange "waist" from which the pollen-bearing anthers protrude.  An unusual form is deep purple.  The nectar inside the pantaloons is difficult for most insects to reach, and the plant is pollinated by bumblebees and other long-tongued insects.  Once pollinated, the flowers develop into dry capsules containing about a dozen seeds.  Each seed has an oily appendage called an elaiosome, which is much favored by ants which disperse the seeds and eat the elaiosome as their reward.  We have already seen another flower which produces elaiosomes, the spring beauty.

The leaves of Dutchman's breeches are about half a foot long and two to six inches wide, on stalks three to six inches long.  They are divided into three leaflets which are further intricately divided.   The plant is another spring ephemeral, a plant which appears in the spring and disappears by summer.  It is a perennial, passing the hot summer and cold winter underground as little bulbs.  Once the plant has produced fruit in the spring the white or pink bulblets go dormant until fall.  Then, still hidden underground, they come to life and break down starch stored in the spring into sugars.  At this time the flower and leaf buds form.  Then the bulbs go dormant once again until spring.

Dutchman's breeches can be found in deciduous woods and clearings with rich soil from Nova Scotia to Ontario, Wisconsin and Minnesota, south to Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas, west to Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.  It also occurs in Oregon, Idaho and Washington.  This western population is believed to have separated from the eastern population about a thousand years ago.  In Wildwood, it can be found along the trail on the western slope of the Park.

  The genus name Dicentra comes from the Greek dis, "twice" and kentron, "spur," referring to the backward-pointing spurs that so resemble inflated pants.  The species name cucullaria means "hooded," presumably also in reference to the flower shape, which is something like a two-crowned hood.

The genus Dicentra includes about 20 species of North America and eastern Asia.  All of them have petals fused to form a bilaterally symmetrical, roughly heart-shaped flower.  Bleeding hearts are in this genus.  Most bleeding hearts are D. spectabilis from Japan, but two North American species, and hybrids between them are also sold under this name.  Squirrel corn, D. canadensis is another species, closely related to Dutchman's breeches.  It has a similar range, but has not yet been seen in Wildwood.  It has similar white flowers, but they are not inflated as in Dutchman's breeches.  It also differs in having yellow bulblets, the "corn" of its name.

The drug corydalis was extracted from the bulbs of squirrel corn and Dutchman's breeches.  It was used to treat skin disease, as a tonic, and to treat syphilis.  Dutchman's breeches also contain another chemical, cucullarine, which is highly toxic.  Cattle avoid eating the plant unless they are starving, and then the poison can lead to narcosis, convulsions and death.

All members of the genus Dicentra are in the Fumariaceae or Fumitory Family.  This family is relatively small, containing only about 450 species of North America and Eurasia.  The family is closely related to the poppy family, and some botanists combine the two.  However, all members of the Fumariaceae have odd symmetrical flowers, while poppies do not. 

Dutchman's breeches, being a spring ephemeral, will not bloom for long.  Enjoy the pretty, amusing flowers.  When it vanishes, remember that it is still alive, even very busy, underground, and will come back next spring.





Home | Yesterday | Today | Tomorrow | Contact Us