Dutchman’s breeches is known for being one of the Ozarks’ earliest blooming wildflowers, showing its pants-shaped white blooms as soon as early March.
Species: Dutchman’s breeches
Scientific name: Dicentra cucullaria
Claim to fame: Dutchman’s breeches is known for being one of the Ozarks’ earliest blooming wildflowers, showing its pants-shaped white blooms as soon as early March. The plant is also known for its toxicity. It contains isoquinoline alkaloids, an ingredient which made it valuable to some Native American tribes and early pioneers as a medicinal plant. As with most other isoquinoline alkaloids, excess consumption will give humans a toxic reaction. (In most cases, it probably wouldn’t be fatal, but it would cause a severe reaction.) The plant is also toxic to grazing livestock.
Species status: Dutchman’s breeches is common in wooded areas throughout the Ozarks and much of the eastern United States.
First discovered: The first scientific description of the plant was written by the renowned naturalist Carl Linnaeus.
Family matters: Dutchman’s breeches belong to the plant family Fumariaceae, a group of species commonly referred to as the fumitory, or bleeding heart, family. This family contains approximately 400 species, the majority of which are located in the Old World.
Height: 5 to 10 inches
Flowers: A plant has four to 10 flowers, each flower about three-fourths of an inch long. The flowers resemble wide-legged traditional pantaloons – hence the name.
Seeds/fruits: Each flower can develop in an oblong-shaped seed pod that tapers at each end.
Distinguishing characteristics: In addition to its pants-shaped blooms (the plant’s most obvious characteristic), Dutchman’s breeches have gray-green fern-like leaves that are finely dissected and emerge from the base on long stalks.
Annual/biennial/perennial: Dutchman’s breeches is a perennial.
Habitat: In Missouri, Dutchman’s breeches is common in moist woods near the bases of slopes and in wooded valleys.
Life cycle: Dutchman’s breeches flowers in early spring, which is a characteristic of many flowers found in woodland areas. Plants in the groundcover portion of forested areas frequently bloom earlier than plants in prairies, pastures and other open areas for the simple fact that they have to. Blooming early in the spring allows forest plants to utilize sunlight that would not be available in late spring and summer when the leafy tree canopies block out much of the sunlight. In the case of Dutchman’s breeches, flowering and seed production occurs in the spring. Each flower develops into an oblong seedpod. This pod eventually dries and splits open to release the seeds. By June – at a time when Ozarks’ grasslands are bursting into an array of wildflower color – the Dutchman’s breeches plant has completed its cycle and returned to a dormant state. Bumblebees are primary pollinators of the plant for a couple of reasons: A bumblebee’s settae (fuzz) allows it to be active earlier in the spring when temperatures are cooler. Thus, bumblebees are able to draw nectar from a variety of early-blooming flowers at a time when other pollinating insects are not active yet. Also, the elongated pants-shaped flower of the Dutchman’s breeches plant is suited for nectar extraction by the bumblebee – an insect with an unusually long tongue.