Dutchman's Breeches is a native perennial herbaceous plant, growing from 4 to 12 inches high to the top of the erect flower stalks.
Leaves are basal, yellow-green to grayish-green above, grayish-green under, smooth, and pinnately divided several times, on long stalks, which are round, and green to pale reddish-brown in color. The leaflet tip has an abrupt sharp point.
The inflorescence is an erect raceme, held above the leaves, (actually, a scape - the above ground flowering stem rising from the root) that has 3 to 14 stalked nodding flowers, which droop away from the stalk as the scape bends slightly over.
The flowers have pale red to yellowish stalks, white with yellow or pinkish tinged corollas about 3/4 inches long. There are two outer large petals that form the upward pointing legs of the "breeches" and show some yellow to pink at their tops (the lower part of the upside down flower). The tips of the outer petals are spurred which extend backward. The spur is heart to triangular shaped. There are two inner petals that are much smaller and show a small crest (or wings) at their tips. These inner petals surround the sexual parts. All four petals are joined at the base. Each flower has a pair of small linear bracts at the base of the flower stalk. The filaments of the six stamens, which are inside the corolla, are united around the pistil until just below where the anthers form. The calyx of the flower has two pair of sepals, one minute set in white, the other pair larger with a pinkish midvein. Flowers are scentless.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a dry ovoid capsule, tapered at both ends, which contains small kidney shaped seeds that have some oily appendages. Seeds are difficult to start as they must have a warm moist period followed by a cold moist period, each of 60 to 90 days.
Habitat: Dutchman's Breeches grows from short underground rhizomes that sport many white tear-shaped bulblets. While not a true spring ephemeral, it grows best in dappled sunlight in rich soils with wet-mesic to mesic moisture conditions. Under a tall tree canopy, woodland edges or protected areas of ravines are good spots. Eloise Butler's notes on the plant are given below.
Names: The genus Dicentra is from the Greek words 'dis' for 'twice' and 'kentron' for 'spur' referring to the two spurs of the outer petals. The species, cucullaria, means 'hood-like' which refers to the sides of the two spurs which curve inward to resemble a hood. The author name for the plant classification - ‘Bernh.’ is for Johann Jakob Bernhardi (1774-1850) German botanist, Professor of Botany, director of the Botanical Garden at Erfurt. His herbarium collection is now in the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium. His work amended the original work of '(L.)' which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparisons: The only other species of Dicentra found in Minnesota is D. canadensis, Squirrel-corn and that is currently on the state "Special Concern List". D. cucullaria is similar to Squirrel Corn. The differences being that in Squirrel-corn the below ground bulblets are yellow and pea shaped, rather than white and tear shaped; also the flowers have scent and the petal spurs are rounded and are also shorter than Dicentra cucullaria. Another more familiar relative is the non-native landscape plant, Bleeding-heart, D. spectabilis, with its pink flowers.
Above: The flowers are held at the top of an erect leafless scape. Note the small bracts at the base of the flower stalk and the two pair of sepals at the base of the flower. One minute pair is slightly separated on the flower stalk from the second pair which is larger and overlaps the two large petals and has a delicate light pink midvein. (The base is the upper part with the stalk, as the flower nods and the distal part is pointing downward.)
Below: The inner petals which house the reproductive parts have a small wing at the base.
Below: The leaves are pinnately divided several times, smooth on both upper (right photo) and lower (left photo) surfaces. Each small lobe of a leaflet ends in a small point as can be seen in the left photo. This point is an extension of the midvein.
Below: A flower group approaching the end of bloom. Flower stalks are usually reddish-brown at maturity.
Eloise Butler's records show that she obtained Dutchman's Breeches for the Garden on May 25, 1907 from the "govt' reservation" at Minnehaha (presumably the area near Fort Snelling and the Bureau of Mines.) and then again in 1908 from the same location. More were planted in 1910, '12, '13 and '14. Martha Crone planted the species in 15 separate years between 1934 and 1957. The plant was on Martha Crone's 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time and has been replanted a number of times since, most recently in 2009 by Curator Susan Wilkins and in 2016 near the Shelter. Native to most of Minnesota except the NW and Canadian border area. In North America Dutchman's Breeches is found in the eastern half of the continent from Manitoba and the farming states of the central U.S. eastward and also the Pacific northwest of the U.S.
Toxicity: Dutchman's Breeches produces about 35 alkaloids, several of which can be harmful if ingested and it can cause dermatitis in sensitive people. The drug complex Corydalis has several of the alkaloids from the Dicentra bulblets. This complex has been used to treat skin diseases.
Eloise Butler wrote of this plant: "Everyone is familiar with the pretty pale pink or yellowish flowers arranged along a slender stalk. The divergent nectaries of the flower have given rise to the ludicrous common name. The single pale green leaf, finely divided into many segments, adds to the delicate beauty of the plant. On Big Island, Lake Minnetonka, protected from marauders by an un-climbable barbed wire fence, grows another member of the same genus, the squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis), similar to Dutchman’s breeches except that the flowers are usually white and shaped like those of another relative, the bleeding heart of the gardens. The squirrel corn is developed from subterranean tubers, round and yellow like grains of Indian corn."(Published in the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune May 7, 1911.)
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"