Dutchman's-breeches or Whitehearts

By William T. Hathaway, 1961.

Dutchman's-breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

(Note: Also see a full-color image of the Dutchman's-breeches.)

Many early spring fishermen have probably marveled over the numerous wildflower inhabitants of Pittsylvania County. Flowers, both showy and inconspicuous, seem to reach the inner self of all outdoorsmen. A moment of contemplation allows the flower's beauty and grace to enrich our thoughts. Even the stouthearted and most courageous of hunters feel nature's communion through this medium of symmetry and color. William Wordsworth aptly wrote in The Tables Turned:

“Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.”

In mid-April of normal spring seasons, there appears in the accumulated rich leaf molds curious little banners of creamy-white flowers. These inhabitants of rock crevices and moist woodlands are lovely spring blooms inelegantly known as Dutchman's-breeches or, more aesthetically, Whitehearts (Dicentra cucullaria).

Our picture shows this fragile and delicate plant with five nodding flowers borne in a one-sided cluster on a simple stalk over-topping the leaves. Each flower has two baglike sepals and a corolla of four irregular petals. The two outer petals are reflexed at the tip and elongated into bloated nectar-bearing spurs at the base. The entire flower is laterally flattened and inversely heart-shaped. The whitish color is accentuated by the yellow apex of the individual blooms.

This plant has been found abundantly established on the northern river bottom lands of the Staunton River near Pittsville. About three miles north of Pittsville before crossing Toler's Bridge, one can find this flower situated on the Pittsylvania side of the river. A hike from Toler's Bridge to the confluence of the Pigg and Staunton Rivers will reveal this floral curiosity at its biological best. Since its leaves are poisonous to cattle, the plant's restricted distribution to cool shady exposures is appreciated by cattle farmers. Fortunately for cattle too, the leaves of this herb wither and fade away by the time most other leaves have appeared on our deciduous trees.