Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
I love Bleeding Hearts and have grown them for years. Newer to me are their cousins, Dutchman’s Breeches, a native plant that grows in the forest so it is perfect for a shade garden.
What are Dutchman's Breeches?
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a native plant found in the Northeastern forests with a smaller population found in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It is thought that the two populations were separated about 1,000 years ago. They were introduced to England in the 18th century when the Chelsea Physic Garden received specimen plants from John Bartram, a nurseryman and plant collector, in Philadelphia.
They are called Dutchman’s Breeches because the flowers look like the pantaloons that Dutch men wore in the 16th and 17th centuries hanging upside down on a clothesline. The flowers are preferentially pollinated by bumblebees because they are flying at that time of year, early spring. Bumblebees are also large enough and strong enough to open the flowers to get to the pollen inside.
Dutchman Breeches are hardy in zones 3 – 8. They are spring ephemerals, growing, flowering and setting seed in the early spring before the trees have leafed out. They grow in full to partial shade. Their preferred habitat is leaf litter. Areas where the leaf litter has been cleared will not have any Dutchman’s Breeches growing in them.
The plants grow 8 to 10 inches tall and 6 to 12 inches wide. The leaves are gray green and fern-like in appearance. The leaves appear in very early spring. The plants flower in March or April depending on your growing zone. The flowers are usually white, but newer cultivars have been bred that produce pink flowers.
The flowers are followed by seeds. Each flower produces a seed pod which contains two seeds. The seeds have a fleshy protrusion called an elaiosome which is attractive to ants. When the seeds ripen, they fall to the ground where they are collected by ants to be brought back to their nests for food. The ants only eat the elaiosome and discard the seeds in their trash area which coincidentally provides the nutrients needed by the young plants that germinate from the discarded seeds. This type of seed dispersal is called myrmecochory. It ensures that the seeds germinate far away from the parent plants so that the plants do not become overcrowded.
Are Dutchman's Breeches Poisonous?
Native Americans used Dutchman’s Breeches medicinally to treat skin conditions, syphilis and as a blood conditioner. It’s not recommended that you ingest this plant. It contains alkaloids that can cause problems with your heart and brain as well as contact dermatitis. Always wear gloves when handling this plant.
The alkaloids are so poisonous that when eaten by grazing animals such as cows and horses, they exhibit alarming symptoms such as staggering, convulsions, vomiting and diarrhea. Surprisingly, sheep are not affected so farmers often send sheep in to graze an area first to clear the plants before cows and horses are allowed in.
Deer and rabbits also avoid these plants. That's good news for those of us who live in areas heavily populated by these pests.
How to Grow Dutchman's Breeches
Choose a shady corner of your yard, preferably under a tree so that the leaves will fall in the autumn to create the soil conditions these plants are accustomed to in their native forests. They are best planted in the fall. When you purchase them, what you will receive are corms. Plant the corms so that the tops are 1 inch below soil level. Plant them 6 inches apart to avoid overcrowding. Keep them well-watered. The leaves will appear in the early spring, about March.
The plants do not need to be fertilized. They require little care because they are adapted to growing in most areas of the US.
The leaves will yellow and die by June at the latest, so plan on having other shade plants growing in the bed to hide the empty spots left by your Dutchman’s Breeches.
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How to Divide Dutchman's Breeches
After a few years of growing, your plants will need to be divided. Before they die back for the summer, mark where they are. Then in the fall, carefully dig the corms up. Each corm should have smaller bulblets attached to it. Gently break off the bulblets and plant them so that they are one inch below the soil level and six inches apart. Replant the main corm either where it was or in a different spot if you are redoing the bed.
The bulblets will not flower for 3 or 4 years. That is how long it will take for them to grow their corm to a size that will support a flowering plant. Just expect leaves for the next 3 to 4 years.
How to Grow Dutchman's Breeches From Seed
The easiest way to grow Dutchman’s Breeches from seed is to direct sow the seeds, barely covered, in your shade garden in the fall where you want them to grow. The seeds need the cold weather of winter to germinate the following spring. You don’t need to do anything special for them. They are natives and adapted to growing in the Northeast and Northwest areas of the US.
You can also start seeds indoors. You will have to mimic the cold weather needed for the seeds to germinate. Plant the seeds in a container of pre-moistened soil, barely covering them. Place the container in a plastic bag and place the whole thing in your freezer for 6 to 8 weeks.
After the 6 to 8 weeks, remove the container from your freezer, remove the plastic bag and place the container in a spot that gets very little sunlight such as a north facing window. Keep the soil moist. The seeds will be slow to germinate. It could take a few weeks, so be patient. You can transplant your seedlings outdoors after your last frost. It will take 3 to 4 years for your seedlings to bloom. That is how long it will take them to grow large enough corms that will support a flowering plant. Until then, the plants will only produce leaves.
© 2020 Caren White
Caren White (author) on April 13, 2020:
Jill, Bear's Breeches are a different plant. I wrote a separate hub on them.
Jill Spencer from United States on April 13, 2020:
Are these the same as bear's britches?
Caren White (author) on March 05, 2020:
Raymond, glad you enjoyed discovering one of our native plants.
Raymond Philippe from The Netherlands on March 05, 2020:
As a Dutchman and nature lover I could not resist reading this info on Dutchman’s breeches. I wasn’t familiar with this plant. Thanks!
Caren White (author) on March 04, 2020:
You're welcome! I used to have a shady yard also and these really brightened it up in the spring.
Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on March 04, 2020:
These are perfect for my very shady property. Thanks!