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 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 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
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.