Dutchman's Breeches Plant Profile

Enchanting Spring Ephemeral for the Woodland Garden

Dutchman's breeches flower closeup.
David Beaulieu

Dutchman's breeches is a spring ephemeral that blooms for only a couple of weeks or so, and even its attractive foliage disappears later. That is the bad news. The good news is that, for those two weeks in spring, it will serve as a 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.

Botanical Name Dicentra cucullaria
Common Name Dutchman's breeches
Plant Type Herbaceous plant with a perennial life cycle
Mature Size Height of 6 to 12 inches, with a similar spread
Sun Exposure Partial shade to full shade
Soil Type Very well-drained, evenly moist, and rich
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time April
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 3 to 7
Native Area Eastern North America

How to Grow Dutchman's Breeches

The plants can spread and naturalize in suitable climates if the necessary growing conditions are provided.

In the wild, they are often found in rocky, sloping areas of moist, shaded woodland—a good indication that, while these plants like an evenly moist soil, they demand very well-drained ground. Mix organic matter into the soil to give the plants nutrients.

Light

The ability of the plant to grow in full shade is a boon to gardeners who have big trees in their yards.

Soil

Sharp drainage is an absolute must for Dutchman's breeches.

Water

Do not let the soil dry out completely at any point during the spring growing season.

Fertilizer

Features of Dutchman's Breeches

The foliage consists of a rosette of deeply-toothed, grayish-green basal leaves; the visual effect is loose, airy, and fern-like. Out of this rosette, leafless stems emerge that will bear the white flowers. These stems typically bear five or six blooms apiece, all lined up in a row. At the bottoms of the flowers are yellow tips. The flowers are only 1 inch across but are numerous.

Good Companion Plant for Dutchman's Breeches

Round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana) is a suitable companion for Dutchman's breeches. They are both perennials native to eastern North America, they require the same sun and soil conditions, and both are among the earliest wildflowers to bloom in their native region (Hepatica blooms just before Dutchman's breeches).

The flower color of Hepatica can be white, pink, lavender, or bluish-lavender. As with Dutchman's breeches, the flowers are only about 1 inch across, but they make up for this small size through their great numbers. The three-lobed foliage is also attractive.

Landscaping Uses, Wildlife Attracted by This Flower

The shade tolerance of Dutchman's breeches makes it a natural for woodland gardens. Many gardeners grow theirs on the north side of the house.

Some report that these flowers are plants that attract butterflies and bees. The plant also attracts ants, however.

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.

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. It is easy to imagine that the arching leafless stems are clotheslines, and that, from these clotheslines, pantaloons are hung out to dry, upside-down.

You 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 sticks out from the center and corresponds to the "drop of blood" that dangles from the bottom of a bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) flower; some might 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 of 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 species name of 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.

There are similar naming discrepancies for: