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Dutchman's Breeches

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Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) has white pantaloon-shaped flowers, as this picture shows.

Picture of the flowers, whose shape gives the plant its common name.

David Beaulieu

Plant Taxonomy of Dutchman's Breeches:

Plant taxonomy classifies Dutchman's breeches as Dicentra cucullaria.

Plant Type for Dicentra Cucullaria:

Dicentra cucullaria is an herbaceous perennial.

Characteristics of Dicentra Cucullaria:

The foliage consists of a rosette of deeply-toothed, grayish-green basal leaves; the visual effect may be described as loose, airy or fern-like. Out of this rosette, leafless stems emerge that will bear the white flowers. On my plants, these stalks typically bear 5 or 6 blooms apiece, all lined up in a row. At the bottoms of the flowers are yellow tips. Plants typically reach a height of 6-12 inches, with a similar spread.

Bloom time is early spring, at about the same time as the forsythia. In New England (U.S.), these are among the earliest wildflowers to bloom.

Planting Zones for Dutchman's Breeches:

Indigenous to eastern North America, Dutchman's breeches can be grown in planting zones 3-7. The plants can spread and naturalize in suitable climates if the necessary sun and soil requirements are met.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Dutchman's Breeches:

Plant in partial shade to full shade. In the wild, they are often found in rocky, sloping areas of moist woodland -- a good indication that, while these plants like an evenly moist soil, they demand very well-drained ground. An acidic soil is best. Provide humus for nutrients.

Uses for Dicentra Cucullaria:

The shade tolerance of Dutchman's breeches makes it a natural for woodland gardens and other shade gardens. I grow mine on the north side of my house.

Wildlife Attracted by Dicentra Cucullaria:

Some report that these flowers are plants that attract butterflies and bees, although I have not witnessed this, myself. What I have been able to confirm is that the plant attracts ants -- just the opposite of the plants used in organic ant control.

Fortunately, since they are poisonous plants, Dutchman's breeches tend to be deer-resistant plants. That makes these deer-resistant perennials a good choice for Bambi-plagued regions.

Outstanding Features of Dicentra Cucullaria:

This spring ephemeral blooms for only a couple of weeks or so, and even its attractive foliage disappears later. That's the bad news. The good news is that, as long as it deigns to grace the landscape, it will serve as that "go-to plant" that you simply must visit on your morning strolls to cheer you up and get the day off on the right foot. Its uniquely-shaped flowers will bring a smile to the face of anyone who is young at heart.

Origin of the Names:

The common name, "Dutchman's breeches" tells you all you need to know to wish to grow these flowers in your own shade garden if you have any appreciation, at all, for whimsy. The name derives from the fact that the flowers are shaped like little pantaloons. To be more specific, it's easy to imagine that the arching leafless stems are clotheslines; and from these clotheslines, pantaloons are hung out to dry, upside-down. One can -- to push the comparison a bit further -- imagine the small yellow flanges at the bottom of each flower to be a decoration or belt around the waist of the pantaloons. Part of this yellow area protrudes from the center and corresponds to the "drop of blood" that dangles from the bottom of a bleeding heart flower; I think of it as the belt buckle.

The origin of the botanical name is somewhat at odds with that of the common name. The genus name, Dicentra is botanical Latin (derived from the Greek) and means "having two spurs," the two spurs being the two pant-legs that compose each of the pantaloons. So far, so good, as the "pantaloons" theme continues. However, the specific epithet, cucullaria breaks with the theme: in Latin, the word means "hooded." Whoever decided on the species name apparently thought the flowers resembled headwear more than pants.

I discuss similar naming discrepancies in the following two articles:

  1. Tulip Trees
  2. Columbine Flowers


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