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Dutchman’s breeches is a remarkable plant. Incredibly showy for a short time in the spring, it almost vanishes later in the season. This woodland wildflower’s most distinctive feature is its delicate and unique flowers. Leafless stalks carry a raceme of hanging white and yellow-tinged flowers, made up of two opposing waxy petals which have fused giving the name-bearing look of breeches. Emerging from corm-like miniature tubers, the foliage is also delicate. The compound basal leaves have a long petiole and are finely divided into long slender segments with an almost fern-like appearance.
This rare native wildflower thrives in dappled light with rich, moist soils. They can be found in forest habitats, particularly deciduous woods near rivers. Look for them in spring as they are an ephemeral species, going dormant by summer.
These delicate natives are another difficult to propagate wildflower. Seed should be collected once the flowers start to dry up, and then planted as soon as possible. Plant seeds every 2 inches (5 cm) in rows 3 inches (7.5 cm) apart, at a depth of 1/8 inch (3 mm). Cover with a light mulch, and most seeds will germinate in the spring.
You can also separate the bulblets in early summer and replant them about 1/2 inch (12 cm) deep. Please remember that you want to have permission before collecting seed and especially before collecting bulblets. Also, only take a small percentage, and make sure you are collecting from a large enough population that you won’t do any damage.
At Macphail Woods, we had a landowner contact us about finding them growing on his property. We collected a small amount of bulblets and have been growing them out, so that we don’t need to be transplanting from the wild. If anyone would like a small amount of bulblets to grow out, please contact our nursery. We should be able to provide these for free.
The unique shape of the flower is adapted for bumblebees, requiring aerobatic flying and a long proboscis to access the nectar. These flowers are a crucial spring food source for native bumblebees.
Areas of Usage:
Dutchman’s breeches is a wonderful spring treat along a woodland walking trail. In addition, its particular relationship with bumblebees and propensity to grow along shady rivers makes it a wonderful for forest and riparian restoration. Its beautifully lacy foliage, unique and charming flowers, and shade tolerance can make it a versatile flower for landscaping. However, it will not tolerate exposed sites, wind, salt spray, or full sun. It is a great choice for shaded and sheltered mixed wildflower beds. As the Dutchman’s breeches go dormant, other flowers will come into bloom.
Dutchman’s breeches are another plant whose seeds carry elaiosomes, those oil-rich, fleshy attachments. As with trilliums and yellow violets, the ants move the seeds to their colonies and only eat the tasty elaiosomes, leaving the seeds to grow. It is an excellent seed dispersal strategy.
These plants, and others such as our native ginseng, make use of the spring sunshine that hits the forest floor before the deciduous trees leaf out. Later in the summer, with the trees providing lots of shade, Dutchman’s breeches fade away. It is a brief period to behold their beauty and delicacy, but their viewing has become a favourite spring ritual.