I recently saw this wildflower while hiking the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail in northeast Ohio. This native plant is common throughout the eastern United States and also occurs in the Pacific Northwest, though it is less common there.
Dutchman’s Breeches blooms in the early Spring from March to April. Its flowers are white to pink and resemble a pair of pantaloons hanging upside down. It has one or more finely compound leaves that make the plant appear fern-like.
The flowers are pollinated by early bumblebees, which have tongues that are long enough to tap the nectar. Unlike the closely related Squirrel Corn, its flowers lack fragrance.
This plant’s seeds are kidney-shaped, with a faint net-like pattern. Each one has a fleshy organ called an elaiosome that attracts ants. Dutchman’s Breeches is just one of many plants whose seeds are spread by ants, a process called myrmecochory.
The ants take the seeds to their nest, where they eat the elaiosomes and then put the seeds in their nest debris, where they are protected until they germinate.
Dutchman’s Breechess can be found in deciduous forests, especially along gentle slopes, ravines or ledges along streams. This species most often occurs in original woodland that has never been plowed under or bulldozed over. It’s abundance in such places can be highly variable.
It has several common names, depending on which part of the country you find it in. “Bleeding Heart” is one, due to its sometimes pink flowers. Another common name is “Little Blue Staggers,” derived from its ability to induce drunken staggering if cattle graze on it, due to the narcotic and toxic substances it contains.