Dutchman's Breeches: Growing Information, Plant Facts

Enchanting spring ephemeral for the woodland garden

Dutchman's breeches (image) is a spring ephemeral. You have to love the whimsical name.
David Beaulieu

Plant taxonomy classifies Dutchman's breeches as Dicentra cucullaria, which is an herbaceous perennial.

Characteristics of This Wildflower

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. These stems 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. See this picture of the leaves to help you with identification.

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.

Origin, Planting Zones, Growing Information 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 growing conditions are provided.

Plant them 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.

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. This author has been able to confirm 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

This spring ephemeral 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, 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 is 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; 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, 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.

Similar naming discrepancies are discussed in the following two articles: