Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are still blooming along the trails in rich moist woods, the white blossoms offset by delicate blue-green, finely cut foliage. Like many spring blooming plants, Dutchman’s Breeches were encouraged to get an early start by March’s warm weather. April’s cooler temperatures should help prolong the bloom season.
Dutchman’s Breeches are named for their flowers, shaped like tiny pantaloons hanging from a wash line. The ‘legs’ of the breeches are curved petals forming spurs. The flower’s other petals create a collar protecting its reproductive parts. It’s at the tip of the spurs that the flower’s nectar can be found, but the preferred entry way is from the other end of the flower, where it’s yellow waistband signals to thirsty bees that a delightful beverage can be found inside.
The Bumble Bee visiting the Dutchman’s Breeches flower in this photo is perfectly matched anatomically to be the pollinator for this plant. Clinging to the bottom of the flower, the Bumble Bee’s tongue is just the right length to reach into the tips of the spurs to access the nectar it’s after. Meanwhile, the bee’s abdomen will rub against the flower’s stigma, depositing pollen the bee may have picked up earlier from another flower. Likely its hairy abdomen will also pick up pollen from this flower, to be carried off to the next blossom that is visited. On its rear leg you can see that the bee has harvested some pollen to take home to provision its nest for its offspring.
Many other bees, including Honey Bees, are unable to reach the nectar via this preferred route, because their mouth parts are too short. Some of these insects may decide to ‘rob’ the plant of its nectar by biting through to the tips to access it. While this satisfies the insect’s need for nectar, it doesn’t achieve the plant’s goal of pollination. Only the Bumble Bee is equipped to assist with that important job.
Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) is a close relative of Dutchman’s Breeches. Their foliage is so similar that it’s very difficult to tell them apart on this feature alone. It’s the flowers that make them easy to distinguish. There is no yellow waistband on Squirrel Corn’s flowers, and they have rounded spurs, giving the flower a heart-shaped look, or the look of a hat worn by a character from Alice in Wonderland. Squirrel Corn gets its name from its underground food storage structures, which look like corn kernels.
Both these lovely plants can be found even in woods that are heavily browsed by deer. They contain chemicals that if consumed in sufficient quantities can be toxic to mammals, including deer. This attribute makes Dutchman’s Breeches a great garden candidate, but a bad addition to your salad.
Like many of the spring blooming flowers, Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn both partner with ants to help disperse their seeds. As an incentive to the ants, there is a nutritious substance attached to the seeds, called an elaiosome. Ants love the elaiosome. They will take the seed back to their homes, eat the elaiosome, and then toss the seed on their recycle pile, effectively planting it.