By SUZAN BELLINCAMPI
There’s been a lot of talk about breaches on the Island: in the great ponds, at Norton Point, and at the Cape Pogue gut, for example. But this column is about a different kind: Dutchman’s breeches.
Wonderful white flowers, resembling pantaloons (or perhaps an upside down molar), hang from these woodland wildflowers and sometimes garden residents. The plant’s scientific name, dicentra cucullaria, translates into “two-spurred,” alluding to those two puffy trouser-like flower parts.
The wild woodland versions of these plants are considered spring ephemerals, flowering and then fading away quickly. Though they are generally not found in Island woodlands, they have been planted in a few Vineyard gardens.
The eclectically-shaped blooms of Dutchman’s breeches confound many a hungry insect. With this flower’s unique design, it is only the very determined (and long-tongued) insect that can get to the nectar deep within. Bumblebees, mason and miner bees make the grade, while many others simply can’t reach the sweet spot. This is truly pollination by design.
Dutchman’s breeches don’t drop their drawers after flowering. Instead, the funky blossoms wither into dry seed-containing capsules. The seeds within are endowed with elaiosomes. Elaiosomes are oily, fleshy appendages that are attached to the seeds of Dutchman’s breeches. These elaiosomes are irresistible to certain species of ants.
An intimate partnership forms between the plant and the ant that provides a benefit to both. Ants crave the lipids and protein in the elaiosomes and bring the entire seeds to their nest to eat. After their healthy meal, the ants toss the seeds out of their nests and the seeds are therefore dispersed away from the mother plant. This method of seed dispersal by ants is called myrmecochory.
Beyond their benefit to ants, Dutchman’s breeches offer humans more than just beauty. Romance can be yours, too. According to American ethnobotanist Huron Smith, “This is one of the most important love charms of the Menomini. The young swain tries to throw it at his intended and hit her with it. Another way is for him to chew the root, breathing out so that the scent will carry to her. He then circles around the girl, and when she catches the scent, she will follow him wherever he goes.”
If you get carried away in your affections and your intended is less than healthy (or doesn’t like having chewed root breathed on her, or seeds thrown at her), not to worry: This plant is reported to be useful to combat the symptoms of syphilis. But how one uses it is a mystery, as it is known to be toxic when consumed and is also a skin irritant when used externally.
Toxic might be too strong a term in the case of Dutchman’s breeches, which is also called staggerweed. That name comes from the fact that this plant can induce drunken staggering in cows that eat it. This stumbling is the result of the narcotic quality of this relative of the poppy plant. It stands to reason, though, that anything that can cause a large cow to wobble is probably no good for humans.
So in the case of Dutchman’s breeches, resist those fancy pants for medicine, but do consider them the perfect pants (and plants) for the garden.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.