Dutchman’s Breeches

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In mid-May we are treated to the annual display of the Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) wildflower.  Aptly named for the shape of the flower, the plant is a relative of Bleeding Hearts and in the same family as opium poppies.  All parts of the Dutchman’s Breeches plant are poisonous, containing toxic alkaloids with narcotic effects.  Another name for this plant is Staggerweed.  Cattle and horses ingesting the plant develop staggering, tremors and convulsions, although not usually life-threatening unless there is repeated exposure.  Sheep appear to be unaffected by the plant’s toxicity.a2

If you don’t try to eat this plant, it is very easy to enjoy its beauty.  The delicate little white pantaloons dangle from racemes about 8″ long.  The feathery, fern-like leaves are very decorative.  The plant is fragile and will die out if the habitat is disturbed.

On our farm, Dutchman’s Breeches grow along the banks of Martin Stream, a small river that meanders for about one-half mile through the property.  Every year the stream floods, covering the area where the breeches grow with a foot or more of water. a4 A thin layer of sand is deposited, creating a perfect habitat for the plant.

Dutchman’s Breeches like moist, fertile, shady places. The seeds are disbursed by ants who prefer to nest in sandy spots.  The photo at right is of a beaver dam on Martin Stream.  The river is about thirty feet across at the dam.  Dutchman’s Breeches are visible in the lower right hand corner.

The plant produces an edible, fleshy growth on each seed called an elaisome.  Ants love this food and carry the seeds to their nests where they consume the elaisomes and discard the seeds in their waste piles.  The seeds have a perfect situation: underground burial on the fertilizer of ant waste.  The plants emerge from small bulblets and are perennial.  The flower nectar is deep inside each bloom. Insects with long proboscises such as bumble bees pollinate them.

Dutchman Breeches grow in spreading colonies and can carpet an area.  Stumbling upon such a place on a spring walk is truly an uplifting experience.a3

 

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