Fumitory family (Fumariaceae)
Description: This native perennial plant is about 4-8" tall. It consists of a rosette of basal leaves spanning about 6" across. These basal leaves are greyish green and hairless. Each of these leaves is ternately compound and divided into 3 primary leaflets, while each primary leaflet is divided into 3 secondary leaflets. These secondary leaflets are pinnately cleft into linear or oblanceolate lobes. The petiole of each compound leaf is long and slender; it is often brown-colored.
From the center of the rosette, there develops a drooping raceme of 2-6 pairs of white flowers. These flowers hang upside down from slender pedicels. In the middle of each pedicel, there is a pair of tiny bracts. Each flower is about ¾" long and assumes the form of upside down Dutchman's Breeches, hence the common name of the plant. It consists of 2 outer petals that are white and 2 inner petals that are pale yellow. The two outer petals form two nectar spurs that are long and spreading; they are joined together at the base. The two inner petals are much smaller and form the base of the flower; they have small wings that curl upward. The sepals of each flower are scale-like and insignificant. The blooming period occurs from early to mid-spring and lasts about 2-3 weeks. There is no noticeable floral scent. Each flower can develop into an oblongoid-ovoid seed capsule that tapers to a point on both ends. This seed capsule eventually splits apart into 2 segments to release the seeds. The root system consists of a bulbous base with fleshy scales and secondary roots.
Cultivation: The preference is dappled sunlight of woodlands, mesic conditions, and a fertile loamy soil with abundant organic matter. This plant develops early and can resist moderate frost without damage.
Range & Habitat: Dutchman's Breeches is a common plant that occurs in nearly every county of Illinois. Habitats include deciduous mesic woodlands, especially along gentle slopes, ravines, or ledges along streams. This species occurs in original woodland that has never been plowed under or bulldozed over. It's abundance in such woodlands can be highly variable from uncommon to common.
Faunal Associations: The nectar of the flowers attracts long-tongued bees primarily, including bumblebees, Mason bees, Miner bees, and Anthophorid bees. Less common visitors include Bombylius major (Giant Bee Fly) and various butterflies and skippers. The butterflies and skippers are not effective pollinators of the flowers. Because the seeds have elaisomes (fleshy or oily appendages), they are distributed by ants. Ants carry the seeds to their nests, eat the elaisomes, and discard the seeds some distance from the mother plant. The foliage is toxic to mammalian herbivores and is not often eaten by them.
Photographic Location: A mesic area of Busey Woods in Urbana, Illinois.
Comments: This is a delightful spring wildflower of woodlands both the flowers and foliage are attractive. Dutchman's Breeches is one of the earlier woodland wildflowers to bloom. The only other species with a similar appearance is Dicentra canadensis (Squirrel Corn). Squirrel Corn also occurs in mesic deciduous woodlands and blooms only a little later than Dutchman's Breeches. The nectar spurs of Squirrel Corn are shorter and more rounded than those of Dutchman's Breeches, and its white flowers are fragrant. It also has a root system that produces small edible tubers. Within the Fumitory family, Dicentra spp. differ from Corydalis spp. by the structure of their flowers the former have flowers with 2 nectar spurs, while the latter have flowers with a single nectar spur.