Monday, April 12, 2010

Dicentralization, Part One

I look upon the pleasure we take in a garden as one of the most innocent delights in human life.

No sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth. The Dutchman's breeches became a thing of sinister menace, and the bloodroots grew insolent in their chromatic perversion.
-H.P. Lovecraft
"The Colour Out of Space"

"My" Bleeding Hearts, Dicentra spectabilis (?)

It’s about time to start looking for the dicentras.

Last April, I happened upon Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) and Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) but never did find the more elusive Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia).

On a visit to Clemson University last summer I had a chance to purchase a nice specimen of Bleeding Heart and transplanted it to the side of a trail in the nearby woods. Several days ago, a flash of magenta informed me that the plant survived the winter and was starting to bloom.

To be precise, my plant isn’t the native but rather the Asian Bleeding Heart (D. spectabilis) or some other species, larger and showier than D. eximia.

Dicentra is quite a genus. Eight species comprise the genus but only the first three of the aforementioned species grow wild in the southern mountains. One species, that grows along the West Coast, is Dicentra uniflora or the Longhorn Steer’s Head, for obvious reason:

Photo and more on this species at Yosemite Explorer -

“Dicentra” means “two spurs” and you can see how that is reflected in the various forms taken by the members of this genus.

To understand why Dicentra canadensis is called “Squirrel Corn” it is necessary to scratch leaf litter away from the base of the plant. The tuberous growths resemble kernels of corn. I have yet to see any squirrels gathering the morsels, but perhaps they do. Even closing in for a macro shot of the blooms I didn’t experience that fragrance of the flowers, but I’ve read that they smell like hyacincths.

Squirrel Corn, Dicentra canadensis

Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s-Breeches have also been called “Little Girl Plant” and “Little Boy Plant” respectively. Their flowers are pollinated by bees. However, some bees lack proboscises long enough to reach the nectar. Those bees will resort to snipping holes through the flower to rob the nectar. In taking this shortcut they fail to pollinate the plant.

The dicentras are poisonous to grazing cattle, presumably due to the alkaloid content of the plants. Many plants produce alkaloids, the botanical compounds that yield caffeine, nicotine, morphine, quinine, yohimbine, mescaline and opium. All parts of the dicentra can be poisonous if ingested. Despite that, it has been used medicinally, both past and present,

Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria

Native Americans and early white herbalists found the dicentras useful for syphilis, skin conditions and as a blood purifier. I found the following in reference to someone who had used a tincture of D. formosa therapeutically:

Internally he has found it effective for the aftermath of accidents, attacks, trauma, especially if the after effect is a continued racing heart or the beginning of an asthma attack. It can be useful for quickly induced depression caused by the former. It breaks the cycle of grief-shock, and allows the person to function. He has used it on himself when his mother suddenly passed away and he was barely able to function the week before her funeral.

It can also be used for the type of trauma that causes the body to have hyper-sensitivity. Clothes feel like weights...and wool feels like a hair shirt...

Our Southern Appalachian dicentras - Bleeding Heart, Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s-Breeches - tend to grow in the rich woods or on rocky cliffs. They have some of the more unusual flowers you’ll ever see and they also display lush, feathery foliage almost blue-green in color.

A linguistic note...

The term “Dutchman’s Breeches” has also found employment as a weather descriptor. According to Admiral William Henry Smyth's A Sailor's Wordbook (1867):
"Dutchman's breeches, the patch of blue sky often seen when a gale is breaking, is said to be, however small, 'enough to make a pair of breeches for a Dutchman'."

The photos above, of Squirrel Corn and Dutchman's-Breeches, were taken on April 14, 2009. I returned today to the same places, not knowing what to expect. Trip report and photos to follow...

Links on dicentra:

The first ones link to the very helpful USDA Plants Database:

Dicentra cucullaria - Dutchman's Breeches

Dicentra canadensis - Squirrel Corn

Dicentra eximia - Bleeding Heart

Dicentra uniflora – Longhorn Steer’s Head

A recent scientific paper explores the potential medicinal qualities of Dicentra scandens and its use by traditional healers to treat diabetes, high blood pressure and gastritis (among other conditions) -


1 comment:

Laura Thomas said...

thank you for this awesomely comprehensive lowdown on Dicentras. I have used one of your photos on my blog with dedicated link to you.
If you withdraw permission I will of course remove it.

many thanks

Laura Thomas
A Leo haling from the Smoke of London, England.