Dutchman’s Breeches

dutchman-breeches

Flower Description:
Many white waxy flowers consisting of 4 petals with 2 upward facing spurs. The tips of each flower are pinkish-yellow color.

Fruit:
Tubular shaped pod that splits down the side.

Leaf Description:
Dark green fringed leaves attached to the stem below the blossoms. The leaves appear soft and feathery.

Common Names:

Boys and Girls, Butterfly Banne, Colicweed, Eardrops, Flyflower, Monk’s Head, Soldier’s Cap, Staggerweed, White Hearts

Established Plant Colonies in Norway Valley

dutchman-breeches-map

Family: Fumitory (Fumariaceae)
Height: To 12” (30 cm)
Flowering: April – May
Habitat: Deciduous, Densely Wooded Areas
Cycle: Perennial
Toxicity: Caution Recommended

Etymology

It is clear to the observer how this wildflower earned its name. “Dutchman’s Breeches” refers to the shape of the unusual flowers produced by this plant. Though breech refers to the buttocks, Dutchman’s Pants, is a more fitting description. The “pantaloons” are actually a composite of four petals. Two petals fold upward to form the pant legs and the other petals are neatly tucked inside protruding over the stamen.

The scientific name is far less creative. Dicentra and cucullaria are derived from Greek words meaning “two spurred” and “hooded” which describe the shape of the flower.

Common Names

Boys and Girls: Dutchman’s Breeches and another similarly shaped species, Squirrel Corn (D. canadensis), tend to be found together. Because Squirrel Corn is pink and yellow, together the pair resembles young playmates.
Colicweed: Suggests that the plant was once used to treat colic.
Eardrops: The way that the flowers dangle from the stem resembles women’s earrings.
Staggerweed: Refers to the plant’s effect on grazing cattle. Dutchman’s Breeches is somewhat toxic. Cows suffer convulsions and even death from overindulging on the leaves of this species.

Pollination

Like Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) , the spurs of the Dutchman’s flower contains nectar which attracts bees that also aid in pollination. The sweet nectar is difficult to reach for most insects. Only those bees with the proper equipment are able to reach the nectar inside. Early spring bumblebees with roughly eight-millimeter long proboscises are able to collect the nectar and pollinate the flower. The six-millimeter proboscis of the honeybee, however, is too short. Instead, honeybees collect pollen with their front feet in a vain effort to tap the nectar.

The unique shape of the Dutchman’s flower serves many important purposes for the plant. The pollen, which is sealed within the upside-down blossom, is protected from both wind and rain. The design also prevents insect invaders from stealing the nectar without repaying the flower in pollination. Some insects including wasps and carpenter bees have bypassed this system by chewing holes in the spurs, thereby robbing the plant of its nectar.

The seeds of the plant are dispersed by ants in a process called myrmecochory.The elaiosome, a fleshy organ of the seeds, attracts the ants. Ants retrieve the seeds and bring them to their nests where they eat the elaiosome and discard the remains. This serves three important purposes for the plant. The seeds are dispersed to many areas, protected in the ant nest until germination, and will likely grow in a rich medium created by the ant nest debris.

Medical Uses

Unlike many wildflowers, Dutchman’s Breeches has few practical purposes owing to its toxicity. The plant produces isoquinoline alkaloids including aporphine and protopine which are central nervous system depressants. Consuming any parts of the plant can cause paralysis and tremors.

Root and leaf poisoning is common in grazing livestock. Animals that feed on this species will begin to tremble. A characteristic staggered gait will follow. Poisoning culminates in severe convulsions, frothing mouth, and ejection of partially digested stomach contents.

Though it is noxious, early Native Americans experimented with the plant in search of medical remedies. The Iroquois used parts of the leaf as a skin ointment for rashes. Other tribes used a root-infused tea as a diuretic. Beyond these purposes however, Dutchman’s Breeches has not been and should not be used in medical treatments.

Plant Lore

One of the constituents produced by Dutchman’s Breeches is a poppy-like hallucinogen. This lent itself to many unusual customs including its use by the Menominees of upper Michigan and Wisconsin as a love charm. The Menominees believed that if they chewed the roots of the plant they would breathe out a perfume necessary for attracting women. If the woman would inhale the scent she would become entranced even against her will and follow the man.