Papaveraceae (poppies), formerly Fumariaceae (fumitories; bleeding-hearts)
Dutchman’s breeches is 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. The flowers do not produce a fragrance. Blooms March–May. Leaves on long petioles from base of plant, compound into 3 sections, finely divided, fernlike, bluish green. Rootstocks with small clusters of tuberlike bulblets, pink, sometimes white.
Height: to about 12 inches.
Rich slopes of woods, bottomlands, streamsides; demands excellent drainage and humus-rich soil.
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.
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.
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.
A very simple way of thinking about the green world is to divide the vascular plants into two groups: woody and nonwoody (or herbaceous). But this is an artificial division; many plant families include some species that are woody and some that are not. The diversity of nonwoody vascular plants is staggering! Think of all the ferns, grasses, sedges, lilies, peas, sunflowers, nightshades, milkweeds, mustards, mints, and mallows — weeds and wildflowers — and many more!