Dutchman’s Breeches

Family: 
Fumariaceae (fumitories; bleeding hearts)
Description: 

An odd-looking spring wildflower that resembles a series of miniature white knee breeches hanging on a line. Flowers 4–10 per stalk, stalk leafless, often leaning; flowers white or faint pink, with 2 diverging spurs (the “breeches”). Each flower is attached to the slender stem between the 2 spurs. Blooms March–May. Leaves on long petioles from base of plant, compound into 3 sections, finely divided, fernlike, bluish green. Root a cluster of grain-sized white or pink tubers.

Similar species: Squirrel corn (D. canadensis) is scattered and rare in our state, mostly in the northern half. It has greenish-white, heart-shaped flowers with short, rounded spurs, and it smells like hyacinths. Bleeding heart (D. spectabilis) is a familiar garden plant that can escape from cultivation or persist at old home sites.

Size: 
Height: to about 12 inches.
Habitat and conservation: 
Rich slopes of woods, bottomlands, streamsides; demands excellent drainage and humus-rich soil.
Distribution in Missouri: 
Statewide, except for the Southeast Lowlands.
Status: 
Many twenty-first-century scientists have been folding all the members of the fumitory family (Fumariaceae; also called the bleeding heart family) into the poppy family (Papaveraceae), and doing away with the idea of a separate family for fumitories. As a result, guidebooks and references will disagree as to how Dutchman’s breeches is classified.
Human connections: 
This plant had many historic medicinal uses among Native Americans and pioneers, but it is apparently toxic and can cause skin rashes in some people. Today, it is most popular as a dainty spring wildflower.
Ecosystem connections: 
This species has a fascinating relationship with ants: The seeds of Dutchman’s breeches have a fleshy part that ants relish. Ants harvest the seeds, carry them to their nests, and eat the edible parts. The now-dispersed seeds can then germinate in the rich soil of an ant nest.