Early woodland wildflowers are not shouters. They’re small, pale blossoms, hovering close to the brown leaves on the forest’s spring floor. Then why do they trigger a surge of elation? Take dutchman’s breeches, which look like blousy white trousers held upside down, with a little yellow bow at the waist. They’re just a few inches high, dangling over feathery dusky green foliage. From a distance, a mass of them looks like a faint brush of green over the hillside. But up close the flowers are enchanting and eccentric, and looking at them makes you feel like spring is speaking to you personally.
Common name: Dutchman’s breeches
Botanical name: Dicentra cucullaria
Plant type: Perennial
Zones: 4 to 8
Height: 6 to 12 inches
• Sun: Part shade to full shade
• Soil: Well-drained, rich, humusy
• Moisture: Average to moist
• Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil.
• Pruning: None needed.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By division
Pests and diseases
• Susceptible to downy mildew, fungal leaf spot, viruses, and rust.
• Vulnerable to slugs and snails.
• In the wild, dutchman’s breeches are often found in drifts that cover a forest floor or a meadow. They will slowly spread if left undisturbed in a woodland garden.
• Dutchman’s breeches bloom in March in most regions. The foliage survives for only a few weeks after the flowers are gone. Don’t mow or clip the leaves—allow them to gather energy before they fade away on their own.
• Combine dutchman’s breeches with shade-loving plants that unfold in late spring or early summer, such as ferns, hosta, or wild ginger.
• Dutchman’s breeches are adaptable, but they cannot tolerate wet soil or poor drainage. They are one of the few plants that can thrive around the trunk of a mature deciduous tree, because they go dormant before the tree leafs out and the soil dries.
All in the family
• The most familiar species in the Dicentra genus is bleeding heart (D. spectabilis, syn. Lamprocapnos spectabilis), originally from Asia. Compared to these large, airy perennials, which get sometimes get as big as a shrub and boast eye-catching flowers, Dutchman’s breeches are tiny and subtle.
• If you look closely, you’ll see that the finely cut leaves of your dutchman’s breeches and bleeding heart resemble the foliage of corydalis plants. All these familiar perennials are in Fumariaceae (the fumewort family).
Where to buy
• Amanda’s Garden, Springwater, NY, 585-669-2275, www.amandagarden.com
• Arrowhead Alpines, Fowlerville, MI, 517-223-8750, www.arrowheadshopping.com
• Shooting Star Nursery, Georgetown, KY, 866-405-7979, www.shootingstarnursery.com
(Photo of Dicentra cucullaria courtesy of the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden.)