top of page

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria): Springtime Treat

Jim Lakin MD, Master Gardener

Read on for Master Gardener Jim Lakin’s exploration of this month’s featured Minnesota native perennial - Dutchan’s Breeches, a springtime treat!

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria): Springtime Treat

Antiquated articles of gentlemen’s attire do not make good names for flowers…usually.  One exception is Dutchman’s Breeches, named after the ubiquitous knee-pants of the 17th century Lowlands.  This curious little ephemeral pops up each spring, looking for all the world like a series of Hollander’s pants hung out to dry.

Dicentra cucullaria is native to temperate North America and can be found throughout the Midwest.  It is hardy from USDA Zones 3 to 7.  North Shore gardeners note!  Dutchman’s Breeches is a forest dweller, preferring humus-rich, well-drained soil in part shade.  You will usually find them on north or east facing forest slopes with underlying limestone.  The foliage is fernlike, emerging in the early spring.  Blooms last for about two weeks in April or early May, looking like upside-down white britches.  The flowers are translucent, luminous white, standing out vividly against the primavera greens of the spring woodlands.  

Once the forest canopy closes and blocks most sunlight, the plant will stop blooming.  Soon after flowering, the leaves will turn yellow and disappear. The flower stalks and leaves arise from an underground corm.  Seeds are dispersed by ants, who are encouraged to carry the seeds underground as they are covered by a protein and fat-rich layer called an elaiosome.  The elaiosome covering makes great food for the ant larvae.   

Once established, the plants grow to about 6 to 12 inches in height and width.  They can be grown from seed although that is a bit of a process.  Use fresh seed and sew in the early spring.  The seeds need a warm period followed by a cold one before germination, so don’t expect sprouting until the following spring.  An easier, and more expeditious means of propagation is to plant corms, which are similar to bulbs, in the fall.  You should have a plant blooming late in the following spring.  If you are interested in propagating more Dutchmen, the mother corm will produce offset corms after a couple of seasons, which can be separated and replanted in the fall.

The landscape uses of D. cucullaria are numerous.  It makes a classic addition to shade or woodland rock gardens.  If you have a shaded slope, it will make a great spring accent.  It nicely fills in a bare spot in a shaded raised bed.  No matter where you plan Dutchman’s Breeches it will always produce a smile at the beginning of the gardening season.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia, Fritz Flohr Reynolds (1), Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources (2)

bottom of page