Dicentra cucullaria (L.) Bernh.

Dutchman's Breeches


CC = 6
CW = 5
MOC = 81

© SRTurner

Family - Fumariaceae

Habit - Rhizomatous perennial forb, the rootstock with small bulblets, these teardrop-shaped (asymmetrically ovoid and tapered to a sharply pointed tip), pink or less commonly white.

Dicentra_cucullaria_bulblets.jpg Dicentra bulblets:
D. cucullaria (L),
D. canadensis (R).

© SRTurner

Stems - Aerial stems absent.

Leaves - All basal, long-petiolate, the petiole 8-24 cm long. Blades usually 4 times compound and lobed, 4.5-9.0 cm long, ovate to broadly triangular in outline, the ultimate segments linear to narrowly oblong-elliptic or narrowly oblanceolate, rounded, mucronate, or sharply pointed at the tip, bright green on the upper surface, somewhat paler, not or only slightly glaucous, and sometimes somewhat yellowish green on the undersurface, the ultimate segments angled or tapered to a sharply pointed tip.

Dicentra_cucullaria_leaf.jpg Leaf.

Note bulblet at base of petiole.

© DETenaglia

Dicentra_cucullaria_leaf1.jpg Leaf adaxial.

© SRTurner

Dicentra_cucullaria_leaf2.jpg Leaf abaxial.

© SRTurner

Inflorescence - Raceme 10-35 cm long, long-stalked and loosely to densely 3-15-flowered, arching at apex, glabrous. Pedicels to 6-7 mm long, each subtended by a small scalelike bract.

Dicentra_cucullaria_inflorescence2.jpg Inflorescences.

© SRTurner

Dicentra_cucullaria_inflorescence.jpg Inflorescence.

© DETenaglia

Flowers - Sepals 2-5 mm long, triangular to broadly ovate, attached basally, rounded to more or less truncate base, the margins entire, membranous and white. Outer petals 10-16 mm long, the concave apical portion 2-5 mm long, abruptly spreading to reflexed, yellow to orangish yellow, the remaining portion white or pinkish-tinged, the spurs 3-10 mm long, triangular in outline, angled away from the flower stalk. Inner petals linear or nearly so toward the base, expanded above the midpoint with a broadly winged margin and a well-developed, entire to slightly undulate crest, rounded at the concave tip. Style persistent, relatively slender, the stigma 4-lobed, the lobes appearing as horns and/or wings.

Dicentra_cucullaria_flowers.jpg Flowers.

© SRTurner

Dicentra_cucullaria_flower.jpg Flower.

© DETenaglia

Dicentra_cucullaria_vscanad.jpg Compaarison of Dicentra flowers:
D. canadensis (L),
D. cucullaria (R).

D. cucullaria has bluntly pointed and spreading petal spurs, whereas D. canadensis has rounded and parallel spurs.

© SRTurner

Fruits - Capsules, dehiscent, 5-15 mm long, narrowly ellipsoid, straight, the surface often slightly swollen over the seeds, otherwise smooth, 3-to numerous-seeded. Seeds 1.5-2.5 mm long, somewhat flattened, more or less kidney-shaped in outline, rounded along the rim, the surface smooth or nearly so, black, shiny, the elaiosome an irregular, somewhat conic, white mass attached in the notch.

Dicentra_cucullaria_fruits.jpg Fruits.

© SRTurner

Dicentra_cucullaria_seeds.jpg Fruit and seeds with whitish elaiosomes.

© SRTurner

Flowering - March - May.

Habitat - Bottomland forests, ravines, bluff bases and ledges, rich slopes along streams.

Origin - Native to the U.S.

Lookalikes - D. canadensis.

Other info. - This small plant is a popular and well-known member of Missouri's springtime ephemeral flora. It is common in woodlands throughout most of the state, as well as the northeastern quadrant of the continental U.S., and also occurs in areas of the Northwest. It is easily recognized by its lacy leaves and unusual flowers, which do indeed slightly resemble trousers hung out to dry on wash day. Both foliage and leaves are similar to those of the related squirrel corn (D. canadensis), which is much less common in Missouri (though the predominant species in some other regions of the country). D. cucullaria is most easily distinguished by its flowers, which have spreading, bluntly pointed spurs (vs. parallel and rounded spurs in D. canadensis), and by its underground tubers, which are teardrop-shaped and usually pinkish in color (vs. globose and yellow, resembling corn kernels, in D. canadensis).

Dutchman's breeches is a toxic plant due to its content of isoquinoline alkaloids, and contact with the plants can also cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals. Symptoms of poisoning include CNS effects such as staggering, tremors, and convulsions, as well as GI effects such as vomiting and diarrhea. Grazing animals, including deer, typically avoid the plant. However, sheep are relatively unaffected by the toxins and can even be used to clear the plants from an area prior to grazing more sensitive livestock.

D. cucullaria is pollinated by bumblebees, which open up the flower tips and probe for nectar in the spurs. The seeds are gathered by ants, which use the attached elaiosomes as a food source and incidentally act as dispersal agents. The plant has been used in gardens, but the closely related D. spectabilis (L.) DC., an Asian species commonly known as "bleeding hearts," is more commonly used for this purpose.

Photographs taken at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, Boone County, MO., 3-20-04 and 3-27-04 (DETenaglia); also at Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin County, MO, 4-9-2006, Washington State Park, Washington County, MO, 4-11-2011, 4-16-2018, and 4-15-2019, along the Katy Trail southeast of Dutzow, Warren County, MO, 4-6-2015, Weldon Spring Conservation Area, St. Charles County, MO, 3-22-2016, Silver Mines Recreation Area, Madison County, MO, 4-8-2019, Little Lost Creek Conservation Area, Warren County, MO, 4-8-2020, and Meramec State Park, Franklin County, MO, 4-16-2020 (SRTurner).