Dutchman's breeches is a spring ephemeral that blooms for about two weeks, and its attractive foliage disappears shortly after. Though it's only lush for a short time, it is a stunning plant native to North America. It is best planted in the fall and will grow slowly throughout the fall, winter, and early spring, emerging mid-season with a spray of blooms.
Its uniquely-shaped flowers form a "V." They are called Dutchman's breeches or britches for looking like a pair of old-fashioned Dutch pants drying upside-down on a clothesline. It also boasts feathery foliage that is fern-like in appearance. All parts of Dutchman's breeches are toxic to humans and animals.
|Common Name||Dutchman's breeches, Dutchman's britches, staggerweed|
|Botanical Name||Dicentra cucullaria|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous, perennial|
|Mature Size||6–12 in. tall, 6–12 in. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Partial, full|
|Soil Type||Moist but well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral, acidic|
|Flower Color||White, pink|
|Hardiness Zones||3–7 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America|
|Toxicity||Toxic to humans, dogs, and cats|
Dutchman's Breeches Care
Dutchman's breeches are an excellent specimen plant and a great option for gardeners looking for some early spring interest in their landscape. The plant is straightforward to care for as long as it's planted in the proper location and will reward you with a slew of visually unique blooms bound to get any garden visitors talking.
In the wild, they are often found in rocky, sloping areas of moist, shaded woodland. Once they've bloomed in early spring, the stems and leaves will drop to the ground, and the plant will go dormant until the following year. They essentially clear out, making space for other late spring or summer blooms to fill in. They're a great option for gardeners looking for a consistently blooming garden.
Because the plant is present early in the season, it rarely has issues with pests or diseases. Deer and rabbits generally do not eat Dutchman's breeches.
Perhaps a unique quality for a blooming plant, Dutchman's breeches love a shady spot in your landscape and do best planted somewhere that receives either partial or full shade. In their natural habitat, these plants grow on the forest floor under a canopy of trees and receive only filtered sunlight. Because of this, they make a great option for gardeners with lots of mature trees on their property or those with shaded spots looking for a bit of love.
Though Dutchman's breeches can adapt to various soil conditions, the plant will do best in moist, rich organic matter and well-draining soil. Moisture is vital during the weeks leading up to the plant's brief bloom, but it's also helpful for Dutchman's breeches to experience drier soil once it reaches dormancy.
The plant loves an acidic soil mixture, though it can also do well with a pH level closer to neutral. That unique combination will produce the most growth and blooms for the following year.
Dutchman's breeches require an average amount of water to grow successfully. In colder zones, most of this water is provided by melting snow in early spring, so it's not typically necessary to provide water manually in those areas.
If manual watering is needed in your region, a good rule of thumb is to allow the ground to dry slightly—but never completely—before watering the plant again. Each plant only needs about 1 cup of water every 10 to 14 days. You can cease all watering once the plant has had its spring bloom.
Temperature and Humidity
As long as they're planted in the proper USDA hardiness zone, Dutchman's breeches plants shouldn't need anything specific regarding temperature or humidity. The plant will need a period of cold to germinate for the following spring, and you should see new plants emerge when the soil has warmed to around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
While fertilizing your Dutchman's breeches plant is not necessary for its success and growth, it benefits from planting in nutrient-dense soil. If your landscape lacks nutrients, amend your soil with some organic matter before planting.
Types of Dicentra Species
Dutchman's breeches are members of the Dicentra species. Several plants hail from the same family, including squirrel corn and bleeding hearts.
- Dicentra canadensis: Also called squirrel corn, this plant has small yellow clustered flowers that look like kernels of corn.
- Dicentra formosa: Also called Pacific bleeding hearts, these plants feature drooping pink, purple, yellow, or cream flowers that are native to the Pacific coast of North America.
- Dicentra eximia: Also called fringed bleeding hearts, it has similarly oddly shaped flowers like D. formosa and is native to the Appalachian Mountains.
- Dicentra spectabilis (formerly Lamprocapnos spectabilis): Also known as Asian bleeding hearts, featuring heart-shaped pink and white flowers.
Dutchman's breeches do not require pruning. They will naturally disappear by the end of its growing season, with foliage returning in early spring.
You can deadhead or pinch off spent flowers from the spray of blooms. When an entire stem of flowers has faded, cut off the flowering sprig with pruning snips a few inches above the ground to encourage the plant to devote energy to reblooming rather than seed production.
If the plant no longer flowers but has green foliage, leave the foliage to gather its energy. You can prune all foliage once it completely fades or dies back naturally (usually by midsummer) during hot summer temperatures. At that point, cut all foliage to only a few inches above the ground.
Propagating Dutchman's Breeches
If you wish to add more Dutchman's breeches plants to your yard or if your plant starts overgrowing in your garden or yard, divide the plant in the fall. You want to transplant when the plants are dormant and not actively growing or flowering. Here's how to propagate by division:
- You'll need a hand trowel or shovel to carefully dig up the corms from the mature plants that have flowered for at least one to two previous seasons.
- To divide the corm, break off a small bulb.
- If potting indoors, you'll need to stratify the corms, tricking it into thinking it's been through a winter season. Bag the corm in plastic and place it into the freezer for at least six weeks.
- If planting outdoors, you won't need anything other than a new planting site. Plant the corm in the desired location about 1 inch below ground level and about 6 inches apart.
- You will likely see a plant with leaves the first year, but the divided plant will not flower until three to four years later.
How to Grow Dutchman's Breeches From Seed
Like propagating from division, you will need to stratify the seeds—making them think they have endured the winter season—to trigger germination. Plant the seeds in a container of pre-moistened soil, barely covering them. Place the container in a plastic bag in the freezer for at least six weeks.
After the cooling period, remove the container from your freezer and plastic bag and place the container in a spot that gets very little sunlight, such as a north-facing window. Keep the soil moist. It will be slow to germinate (taking one to three months). You can transplant seedlings outdoors after the last frost has occurred.
Potting and Repotting Dutchman's Breeches
Dutchman's breeches are ephemerals that grow similarly to bleeding heart plants. They grow best outdoors in the ground, but they can also grow in pots. They will require a slightly larger pot to accommodate its corm growth comfortably.
Pot seedlings in a container that is at least 12 inches in diameter. The container material doesn't matter as long as the container has good drainage. You don't have to repot the plant, but you should plan on dividing the plant's corms or rooting structures every three to four years so the plant does not outgrow the pot.
Dutchman's breeches naturally die back during the winter season. The corm or underground root structures will survive the cold winter even if the plant appears dead above ground. Keep watering the soil up until the first frost.
You can protect the corms and help them retain moisture by adding a two-inch layer of mulch on top of the plant stems at the start of winter. Remove the mulch as the ground begins to thaw.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
This plant is not susceptible to many pests. It has developed a symbiotic relationship with ants. The ants like the fleshy part of the seeds. Ants harvest the seeds, carry them to their nests, and eat the edible parts. They disperse seeds for germination.
Bumblebees also pollinate this plant, even though it's not required since it is self-pollinating. The queen bee particularly relishes the nectar of Dutchman's breeches flowers.
Like most shade-loving plants, watch out for fungal diseases that can occur with too much water or moisture. Soggy soil can lead to root rot, powdery mildew, and leaf spot. If the plant has turned black and foul-smelling, remove it since its fungus can affect other nearby plants. Treat the planting spot with a fungicide.
If the plant has developed a fungal disease while growing in a container, sterilize the entire container and throw out the soil. In the future, only water the soil (not the plant leaves) to prevent fungus issues. Excessive moisture on the plant's foliage encourages fungal growth.
How to Get Dutchman's Breeches to Bloom
This plant does not like much sun. If it gets too hot, it will stop growing and not produce its signature flowers that look like hanging pantaloons. Its beautiful flowers have no fragrance.
Also, keep in mind that this plant takes several years to mature. You can expect to wait three to four years before your newly planted Dutchman's breeches produces early spring blooms. Also, if a plant is too crowded in the ground or pot, it may not make flowers. Divide its corms every several years to encourage more growth.
If your plant has bloomed and the cool spring air remains, you can trigger the plant to bloom again by deadheading or pinching off spent flowers. You can cut the blooming sprigs one to two inches above the soil surface. Also, give the plant fertilizer every six weeks after the ground thaws until the flowers completely fade.
Common Problems With Dutchman's Breeches
Dutchman's breeches are easy to maintain if you mimic their environment as best you can. The most common issues to keep an eye on are too much moisture and insufficient air circulation, which can lead to fungal problems.
Powdery Residue on Foliage
Plants that grow in the shade and have a wet winter and spring are susceptible to powdery or downy mildew and other fungal infections. It looks like white or grayish powder that appears like splotches on the plant's foliage or as if the plant has been dusted in flour.
To prevent it, water the plant at the soil line (not the leaves) and improve air circulation around the plant by pruning away unnecessary overgrowth that impedes the air from flowing freely around the garden. Remove badly infected foliage and treat the affected plant with neem oil or a sulfur-containing fungicide.
Blackening Foliage or Sudden Plant Death
Some fungal infections are fatal for Dutchman's breeches, like verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, botrytis, and root rot. These diseases usually mean certain death for the plant and come on quickly. Treatment is rarely successful, but you can try treating it with a fungicide at the root and soil level and removing all dead foliage and blackened root structures.
If you unearth the corm and see some healthy corm left (not blackened, mushy, or dark brown), apply fungicide and plant it in a sterilized pot with fresh soil. Discard all infected foliage by bagging it and discarding it with trash. Do not compost it.
Forgetting Where It's Planted
If your Dutchman's breeches are planted in-ground, it is common to forget exactly where you've planted them since they die back to ground level and leave no trace once cut back. You don't see them for a good part of the year and often do not have any visible indicator where they are below ground. So, place markers where your Dutchman's breeches are planted. This extra step will help you not disturb the corms underground when planting your summer annuals or fall bulbs.
Does Dutchman's breeches spread?
It spreads easily when grown in its ideal conditions through corms underground. Bumblebees also help pollinate the plant, and ants spread the plant's seeds.
Where do Dutchman's breeches grow?
This wildflower is native to the U.S. and commonly grows throughout the eastern United States and Pacific Northwest woodlands.
Can you grow Dutchman's breeches indoors?
The plant can grow indoors if given the right conditions, although it will grow the easiest outdoors.
Dutchman's breeches. Penn State University.
Dutchman Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria (L.) Bernh.). U.S. Forest Service.