The Spring has officially begun! Every spring, when the ephemeral flowers start appearing in our woods and valleys, there are a few plants that trick me. I find myself leafing through my plant identification books in the evening to remind myself of the names and faces of all the different plants that seem to appear all at once in March, April and May.
Three plants, all in the same genus, Dicentra, catch me up every year. They are Dutchman’s Breeches, Squirrel Corn and Bleeding Heart. The genus name “Dicentra” is Greek for “twice-spurred” and it refers to the shape of the flowers in all of the species. The leaves of Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches are so similar that I have trouble telling the difference, even with a book in my hand.
All three grow in the rich woods in our area. Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia) is the easiest, because their flowers are a beautiful rose pink and heart shaped, with short, rounded spurs. The flowers look very much like little pink hearts and I rarely mistake it when I find it in the woods. But if it has not flowered yet, I run into a little trouble. The leaves of these three species are very similar, although the leaves of Bleeding Heart are supposed to be less finely cut than the other two species. Interestingly, the bleeding heart is also known as Turkey Corn and Staggerweed and is a cousin to the Opium Poppy. If cattle can find any and eat them, they stagger around as if they were drunk.
Then there is Squirrel Corn (Dicentra Canadensis). I find that plant every spring in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. It has white flowers, with just a touch of very light pink. These flowers closely resemble the flowers of the more commonly known Dutchman’s Breeches, except that the spurs of the flowers are just a little more rounded, making the flower a little more heart shaped. Another important identification point is that the flower is quite fragrant and the flower stalk sticks straight up above the leaves. If you are wondering whether squirrels eat the plant, they don’t. The name comes from the shape of the rhizomes, or underground stems, which have little yellow bulblets all along them that resemble corn.
The last of the three tricksters are the Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). The flowers hang from an arching stem and look like, you guessed it, little Dutchman’s britches hanging upside down by one leg. The “waist” of the pants is yellow and the spurs of the flower are much longer and more divided than the other two species. Their flowers have no fragrance at all, so I know I’ll be on my knees sniffing flowers during my hikes. When plant lovers come in the spring to photograph or just admire the flowers that this part of the Appalachians are famous for, Dutchman’s Breeches is one of the plants on their plant lists. I’m beginning to suspect that these three plants are going to keep me very humble, because I find myself stumbling and hesitating every year when I hear one of the people on our nature hikes call “This is Dutchman’s Breeches, isn’t it?”
Head out to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest Loop Trail this month and see if you can tell the difference between the three Dicentras. Bleeding Heart most likely will not be present, but both Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches are prevalent in March.