Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Dutchman's Breeches

There is perhaps no other wildflower in the Southeast with such a whimsically appropriate name.

So appropriate in fact, that it hardly needs an explanation.

For these flowers do indeed look like puffy Dutchman's pants hanging to dry on an arching clothesline.

In fact, if you hold the flower upside-down, it sort of looks like an entire Dutchman!

The spurred blooms and lacy compound leaves make it an easy wildflower to identify.

These plants are usually poking through the soil by late March.

Their little flowers are already developing by the time the feathery foliage spreads its lacy fingers.

They can form extensive colonies in rich woodland habitats across the eastern two-thirds of the country and in the Pacific Northwest.

Dutchman's Breeches is a member of the bleeding heart family.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia) is an often cultivated plant that hails from the Appalachians. Its name is also very descriptive of its appearance.

This floral family also contains one other similar plant, whose range and blooming time happen to overlap Dutchman's Breeches, sometimes leading to some confusion.

This is Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis), and although at first glance it looks very much like Dutchman's Breeches, there are some differences.

For one, its flower stalk has an upright growth habit, unlike the arching stem of its counterpart.

The blooms are also different; the spurs are rounded, whereas in Dutchman's Breeches they are sharply pointed. 

There is also a subtle difference in their foliage.

Both are soft, feathery and deeply lobed, but the lobes are wider in Dutchman's Breeches (pictured right) than Squirrel Corn (pictured left).

And lastly, a sniff can help you determine who is who: Squirrel Corn is mildly fragrant, and Dutchman's Breeches are not.

Another shot of Squirrel Corn
The Latin name for Dutchman's Breeches is Dicentra cucullaria.

Dicentra is Greek for "twice-spurred," in reference of course to its unique flowers. Cucullaria is Latin for "hood-like."

All members of the Bleeding Heart family not only share similar physical characteristics, they also have the distinction of being quite toxic.

For this reason, they should never be consumed.

However, these same toxins have provided humans with medicine since Native American times.

The roots were dried and brewed into a tea for use as a diuretic and diaphoretic. 

There is an alkaloid present in the plant that actually suppresses the central nervous system, so it was used to treat paralysis and tremors.

A poultice from the leaves was used to treat skin ailments.

To the Cherokee Indians, Dutchman's Breeches was considered a love charm. The men would nibble on the roots believing that it would make their breath lure in women, even against their will.

The flowers remain for a couple of weeks before fading away and transforming into dangling seed pods.

Like many wildflowers we have discussed previously, Dutchman's Breeches are dispersed via myrmecochory - by ants. Attached to each seed is fleshy structure known as an elaiosome, which is high in delicious fats. The ants transport the seed, feed on the elaiosome, and discard the seed.

The unusual Dutchman's Breeches is one of many wildflowers that captures our imagination.

Find a patch near you so you can admire them more closely - they are sure to bring a smile to your face!

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's Wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower: Sweet Betsy

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians - Dennis Horn and Tavia Cathcart

Wildflowers of Tennessee - Jack Carman

Plants for a Future


  1. I thought they look a lot like bleeding heart! They are beautiful and thank you so much for sharing this information about them. I love that you showed the foliage together. That is very helpful in telling the difference between the two! I can't wait to get in the woods and start hunting mushrooms!

    1. We haven't been morel hunting yet, but I'm determined to find some this year. I was just reading this article, actually:

    2. We love them! We both started hunting them with our respective Dad's when we were itty bitty! I've found not so many folks eat them down here. In IL just about everybody mushroom hunts! We used to hunt our own land, but we don't own enough anymore, so we hunt out at Mammoth Cave. I'm sure you've got tons where you are!

  2. Yay! I love our bleeding hearts, so I'm really glad you posted a wildflower like it that I can try to hunt down. What a lovely and neat little plant! I am tickled by the name, too- so cute. :)

  3. Beautiful photos! I appreciate the information and description that you have provided. I enjoy looking for wildflowers while hiking.

    1. Wildflowers are incredible, aren't they? Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Great post. Congrats on being chosen as a featured post on this week’s Wildcrafting Wednesdays! I hope you'll join us again and share more of your awesome posts.

  5. Great post! You are a featured post on this weeks Wildcrafting Wednesday! Lots of good info here!

  6. Absolutely lovely!

    Thanks for linking up with Green Thumb Thursday! We'd love for you to join us again this week!