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Scientific Name: Dicentra cucullaria
Common Name: Dutchman's Breeches

(Information for this species page was gathered in part by Ms. Chelsea Walker for Biology 220W, Spring 2009 at Penn State new Kensington)

Dutchman's BreechesDutchman’s breeches (Dicentra curullaria) are among the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring throughout the rich, deciduous forests of eastern and Midwestern North America. Their yellow tipped, white, flattened flowers (1/2” to ¾” long) grow in clusters on a leafless flower stalk above dark green, low growing, “parsley shaped” leaves. The shape of the flowers is the source of the plant’s unusual name. Moist deciduous forests with well drained soils and abundant leaf litter and humus most favor the presence of Dutchman’s breeches. Acceptable sun exposures range from full sun to deep shade, and soil pH’s slightly above or slightly below neutral (6.8 to 7.2) are the most favorable. Leaf cover, though, seems to be absolutely critical for the development and occurrence of this plant. Any site that has lost its leaf litter (and soil humus) layers due to disturbance and erosion will almost certainly not have Dutchman’s breeches.

The flowers are pollinated largely by bumblebees and honeybees, although other insects able to reach the nectar may also be effective. Seeds mature in five weeks and may be dispersed by rain or, more frequently, by ants. Unconsumed seeds in old ant nests germinate and form new clusters of plants.

All parts of Dutchman’s breeches are toxic due to the presence of isoquinoline alkaloids. Grazers, both wild and domesticated, generally avoid feeding on this plant. Symptoms of isoquinoline alkaloid poisoning develop very quickly: staggering, trembling, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, labored breathing, etc) but usually do not result in the death of the animal. Even skin contact with Dutchman’s breeches can result in transient redness and irritation. Deer in particular avoid Dutchman’s breeches making it one of the few endemic plants that have increased in abundance in our deer ravaged eastern forests! Interestingly, sheep are known to be quite resistant to the effects of this plant toxin. This observation has led to a management technique for plant control in pastures rich in Dutchman’s breeches in which sheep are grazed in the pasture before more sensitive cattle or horses are allowed access.

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