Dutchman's Breeches, A Comedy of Errors
"...and of the flower bushes, only the hardier specimens stood their ground amidst goldenrod and Dutchman's Breeches." Ol' Remus from the Woodpile Report
Dutchman's breeches bloom in the spring, and you might wonder why I would write about a spring wildflower in late summertime. It is a quand'ry, as Aunt Bett would have said. But the action that I will share with you takes place in very late summer, and I thought it might be more entertaining if I shared it at this time. Most plants are appropriately well named and this one is no exception. It's bloom resembles the wide-legged, traditional pantaloons worn by Dutchmen.
Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a relative of the Bleeding Heart, and as such has the same environmental requirements. It is a perennial and it grew on the northern slopes of the mountains of southeast Kentucky where I grew up. It does much better in shade than in full sun, and will grow along the edges of woods or creek banks. It blooms early in spring, and the bloom stalk often shows before the leaves have completely formed.
Aunt Bett and I, both wearing our protective asphidity bags, trudged up the north side of the mountain behind her home early on a sunny spring morning. I remember that it was quite cool in the shade, and the legs of my jeans were damp with dew. Aunt Bett carried a long tomato stake and I carried one of my red hair ribbons. During those days on Saturday mornings when we went to town or on Sundays when we went to church my mother dressed me in my finest homemade dress complete with a ruffle on the bottom and lace around the collar. Sometimes it was a gingham pinafore over a starched white blouse with white lace socks and black patent Mary Janes. And always I had matching ribbons in my hair. That doesn't mean they stayed attached for very long, but I always started out with those ribbons. On the day of the great Dutchman's breeches hunt, I tucked a red ribbon in the pocket of my jeans and sneaked it out of the house. I didn't like the dress it matched anyway, and I knew my mother would not force me to wear the dress without two matching ribbons. And besides, Aunt Bett had told me to bring something to tie on a stake as a marker.
We carried the tomato stake and red ribbon up the mountainside, and when we came to the plant we were seeking, Aunt Bett stopped and looked around. "Take a good look, chile," she said, "cause we have to find this place later on 'fore the leaves start to turn." I asked her why we couldn't find it by looking for the white flowers again, but she told me that those white flowers would be long gone by then. "They're Dutchman's breeches and they don't bloom more'n a day. When the weather turns warm, they don't bloom a'tall, and by summer's end, nothings left of them. We're just marking their places." She told me to find her a good sized rock that had a flat side, and she proceeded to pound that stake into the ground right in the middle of the Dutchman's breeches. I even got to tie the red ribbon at the top of the tomato stake. I wanted to tie it in a bow, but she thought it might not be tight enough, so she came over and helped tighten it up a little. It looked right pretty in the early morning sunlight.
That was the first slightly different part of our normal plant searches, but I didn't question Aunt Bett, because I believed everything she said. Besides, she didn't much like to talk while she walked. It could be that she was in her 60's at the time, and now that I am there as well, I don't talk when I walk much either. So we walked on down the mountain, her white hair hidden beneath her homemade bonnet, me traipsing along beside her empty handed.
Summer ended and school started, and on a Saturday morning we went back to find our tomato stake. There it was, still standing in the middle of a leaf covered bare spot about halfway up the north side of the mountain. It was weather darkened by this time but the hair ribbon was still pretty bright. And it was still tied in the knot that Aunt Bett had tightened for me. She pulled out a small pronged tool, her digging tool, and her ever ready burlap bag. "Chile, I'm gonna start diggin' and whenever I find a clump o' them bulbs you come gather them up and put them in the bag. They are little tiny, so we'll put each clump in one of the paper bags first so we don't lose none of 'em. Then you go on and put them paper bags in this big bag." Keep in mind I always did whatever Aunt Bett said.
We got our bags all together, and I was wondering what she was going to do with all those tiny, tiny bulbs. They looked to me a lot like rice, about that size and a very light color. We stopped when we came to a clearing and I asked her if she made a decoction or an infusion with them. Her being the Mountain Medicine woman and me being her assistant, I always tried to ask questions with words she had taught me. She thought for a minute, then she said, "Ain't neither one. This here's goin' to be chewed like tobacco." Somebody's gonna chew this? I couldn't believe anybody would chew that mess of dirt and bulbs. "Plenty o' them young boys, they don't know no better. It won't do them no good, but I can't tell 'em a thing," she said. I asked her if it was like chewing gum, and she told me absolutely not. She didn't tell me anything else that day, except to add: "I reckon it ain't gonna hurt 'em none if they spit it out. Seems like it worked for their Daddies, so I reckon it'll work for them. Long as they don't swallow." And not another word did she say.
When I was about 16 and had a boyfriend of my own, I went to visit her. By this time I thought she might be ready to retire from her medicine job, since we had not been up the mountain in search of anything for a while. I had kept an eye on my boyfriend just in case he started chewing and spitting anything , and so far it hadn't happened that I knew of, so I asked Aunt Bett again why she gathered Dutchman's Breeches. "Why honey," she said, "them boys was told by their daddies and their granddaddies that them bulbs would give them sweet breath, and if they had sweet Breath of the Breeches, their women would smell it and never say no. They thought they'd snag a wife that way." I asked her if it worked. She just shook her head and smiled. "Not likely," she answered, "but sometimes if you believe somethin' long enough, it might come true."
I found out later that the "Breath of the Breeches" was a Native American legend from long ago. The northern tribes used it as a love charm. Along with that legend, it was often used to treat skin conditions and as a blood purifier, but if a person was allergic, they might get contact dermatitis. It did grow in clusters there, and it was quick to spread from one spring to the next. Ants eat the elaiosomes that are in the seeds, then drop the seeds in their nest debris, where they are protected until they germinate. There sure were a lot of ants living in the mountains.
Studies show us now that Dutchman's breeches might be toxic and should never be ingested. I think my Aunt Bett suspected that to be the case, but as far as I know no one died from it all those long years ago. That could be because they were told to spit it out. And it might have worked because there were a lot of sweethearts back then, and they mostly went on to get married to each other.
None of my boyfriends ever chewed the roots of Dutchman's breeches. Well, I never actually asked them about it, so I really don't know.
Todd Boland has written an article on the Dicentra family which includes Bleeding Hearts: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/934/
Photos from Plant Files include the work of : mygardens, KevinMc, and Malus. Thank you, photographers.
Sites used for research include: http://woodpilereport.com/www-woodpile-report-038-index.htm