In a Dicentra State of Mind…

Well – I know Valentine’s Day has come and gone – but being February for another few days – I still have hearts on the mind.  And with spring on its way  – I can’t help think about the spring ephemerals that will be here before we know it as well. So I guess I just am in a Dicentra state of mind right now…

Dicentra canadensis

D. canadensis, squirrel corn

dutchmen's breeches

D. cucullaria, dutchmen’s breeches











Our two native species in New York are very similar in appearance, in fact, it wasn’t until recently that I saw both  (or at least that I happened to notice both!) while out on a walk in the woods just last May. I’m sure they have both been out there all along – but you really have to be paying attention to notice.  Both are small, dainty plants with white flowers and delicate, green-blue foliage. Dicentra canadensis, or squirrel corn, is the more heart-shaped of the two, while Dicentra cucullaria, dutchmen’s breeches, looks more like an upside down pair of pantaloons – hence its common name.

I see dutchmen’s breeches every spring, mixed in with the Red trillium, hepatica, and spring beauties, and have quite a nice patch growing in my garden.  It is also the one native Dicentra that we grow at our nursery, Fiddlehead Creek, and that you can find for sale at other native plant nurseries in our region.  Dutchmen’s breeches is the more commonly seen of the two species I think, and the better well known ( at least from what I have found in our area). Squirrel corn, looks more like the other Dicentras, Dicentra eximia and Dicentra spectabilis, but isn’t available commercially as far as I know – and I think is less common to see – at least from my own experiences out in the woods.

spring ephemerals

Spring ephemerals in the NY woods: dutchmen’s breeches, spring beauty, and red trillium

Dicentra.eximia.plant photo from BBG

D. eximia, wild bleeding heart. photo courtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Dicentra eximia, wild or eastern bleeding heart, is considered native to much of the eastern US (Dicentra formosa, western or Pacific bleeding heart, is its counter part on the west coast).  While the USDA PLANTS database and the BONAP database list it as native to NY, our NY Flora Atlas does not. They do note that it appears to be growing in ‘natural areas’ in NY – however at this time they do not think it is native to NY – but rather more likely a result of escapes from gardens. I would be interested to hear if anyone has seen it while out walking in the woods in NY.  It is also small and dainty like it’s realtives, but the flowers are pink instead of white. Either way, it really is quite a lovely flower as well.

old fashioned bleeding heart

D. spectabilis, Old fashioned bleeding heart

Perhaps the most well-known Dicentra by the gardening public is Dicentra spectabilis, or old-fashioned bleeding heart. This is a staple in many gardens, and available at most garden centers.  There is even a white variety that is quite nice. This species is much larger than our US natives – reaching 2-3 ft in size rather than just the 6-12 inches that our native Dicentras reach. While it is a lovely plant, and not invasive, this bleeding heart is not a U.S. native, but rather is native to eastern Asia.

old fashioned bleeding heart, white

a white old fashioned bleeding heart

I have found that many people mistakenly think that this is in fact a US Native plant.  Similar to hostas and astilbes, I guess it has that ‘natural’ look that people assume means ‘native’. My husband actually got into quite a heated discussion with a customer at our nursery one day over this plant, who asked if we carried bleeding heart. He told her no, it wasn’t native to NY so we didn’t.  She informed him that he didn’t know what he was talking about, and it most definitely was! No matter, as I am still partial to our native Dicentras, particularly dutchmen’s breeches.  Even though they are small and short lived, spring ephemerals as such a joy each spring, and definitely worth adding to your garden in a shady corner if you haven’t already!

© 2013, Emily DeBolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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About Emily DeBolt

Emily has a Bachelors degree from Cornell University and a Master's of Environmental Interpretation from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She lives with her husband Chris and Greater Swiss Mountain Dog McKinley in northeastern New York where they run Fiddlehead Creek, a 100% New York native plant nursery that specializes in growing plants for water quality and conservation projects.


  1. Kathy Settevendemie says:

    Emily, Another wonderful dicentra native to Montana is Dicentra uniflora also known as Steershead. We hike up into the mountains and find these in the snow in April. Here’s a link to a photo:
    Kathy Settevendemie recently posted..Plants vs. ‘Plant Communities’

  2. Donna@Gardens Eye View says:

    Emily I planted the Dutchman’s breeches in hopes to get them to grow this spring and will hope to add the native dicentra…how funny what folks think of as native, but I guess it makes sense. I hope when I finally retire and have time to visit your wonderful nursery. I may have to bring a pick up though.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Organic Gardening

  3. Ellen Sousa says:

    Emily, I have a small patch of the Dutchman’s Breeches (love the name!) growing in front of a large rock on a hillside at a height where somebody walking past can admire those lovely but low flowers in spring. After they bloom they disappear under the ferns for the rest of the year, but for a week or so in spring, they get a lot of attention :) I also confess to growing the white (Asian) bleeding heart on a different hillside, but they are not invasive in any way and they are so pretty peeping out of a patch of Juniper in spring…

    Squirrel Corn blooms just a bit later than the D.cucullaria, so no need to choose one or other, plant both! :)
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..Norcross Sanctuary – Hidden Jewel of Monson, MA



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