Pantaloons in the Forest

I dreamed that I was in a dark room. I was a child. There were voices. I heard my sister’s voice in the distance. She was in distress. Muffled, her crying voice slowly disappeared. Cautiously, I felt around every corner of the black room with my small hands but I could not locate her. She seemed to be no longer a part of my life. I was alone and left to my devices. Scared and bewildered, I burst from the room through large closed doors and into white light. Outside I was surrounded by green forest. Tall pines shadowed over my small frame. Giant ferns blew in the wind. A nearby stream flowed lazily through a narrow wetland. I was alone but free. A smile came to my face as a vole scampered amongst the sedges. And then I woke suddenly; still sweating but comforted by the way things had turned out in this other world.

On some days it seems like thus far life has been a long, long journey. At other junctures, time travels at nearly the speed of light. As a young pup I found myself alone in the woods often in retreat and hiding from a twisted childhood. There I could be free, temporarily safe from an unstable reality, and there I could find solace in what I would learn to be my real world for years to come. These years of running from my childhood, all of this time finding peace and quiet beauty in another world, has left me with an obscure but enlightened point of view. If nothing else I have learned, really learned, that there is absolute elegance in this world if we only take the time to notice the detail, perhaps the miniscule, that is intertwined and woven into all parts of this planet we call Earth.

Of no little consequence on this day I am sitting on a ledge outcrop that faces north. Sunlight filters through branches above that host new foliage not fully developed. The shadows on the ground are thin and dance about with the mellow breeze; almost appearing like tiny marionettes moving about the forest floor on  a dimly lit background from filtered sunlight. The rock on which I sit is cool and moist. Water dribbles from cracks in the weathered stone plating and drips through the lichen and moss that call the rock home. My pants absorb some of this water behind my knees and cools my legs that have carried me to this isolated area. On this day I am elated that spring is finally here and am enjoying the warm, clear day that so typically signifies another season.

A few feet in front of me I notice amongst last years decaying leaves a group of green plants with  feathery delicate foliage. I stand and approach the plants and get on my hands and knees for close examination. Above the feathery leaves is a thin stem and from the stem hangs a group of oddly shaped yellow and white flowers. The flowers resemble old fashioned pantaloons hanging from a clothesline; hence the given name “dutchman’s breeches” (Dicentra cucullaria). This plant, common to rich soils in central New England, is a bit unusual in these acidic soils. We are more likely to have “squirrel corn” (Dicentra canadensis) in these parts. Squirrel corn is very similar to Dutchman’s Breeches but has more rounded spurs and a thick corn-like knob at the root crown right at the surface of the soil. That this area has dutchman’s breeches tells me that the soil is a little sweeter in this part of the forest. Perhaps the predominate schist rock that accounts for most of the bedrock in the area had a band of calcareous minerals that influenced the soil Ph. Who knows?

Dutchman’s breeches are completely reliant on specialized bees for pollination. Only bees with long tongues can navigate the deep pocket where the nectar is held, unintentionally come in contact with pollen, and fertilize another nearby plant as it reaches in for more pollen. Some long tongued bumble bees, mason bees, miner bees, and anthophoridae bees qualify for this task. Without these wonderful pollinators the dutchman’s breeches would be in a very bad way.

Another unusual relationship that this plant has with the animal kingdom is with the ant. Some species of ants carry the dutchman’s breeches seed to their nests. There they eat elaiosomes that are found along the shell of the seed. The elaiosome is a fleshy organ that is filled with lipids. After the ant consumes the elaisome it discards the remaining seen in debris piles outside of the nest that are rich in organic matter. The seeds often sprout and grow successfully in these locations spreading the Dutchman’s Breeches to new parts of the deep woods. Given ants carry the seeds for good distances this seed dispersal technique can distribute the plant over large areas of the forest. This type of seed dispersal by ants is referred to as myrmecochory by ecologists.

Native Americans, particularly the Menominee tribe used dutchman’s breeches as an aphrodisiac. It was believed that chewing on the flower gave a male sweet breath that a woman could not resist. The flower and plant is known to be toxic to cattle and other farm animals, so it would be strictly ill advisable to swallow the plant after chewing it. In fact it makes sense to stay away from this tradition altogether!

While down on my hands and knees examining the dutchman’s breeches I see that amongst the decaying leaves another, even smaller, wild flower graces the forest floor. Spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), six white petals with dark pink stripes and tinged with a spot of yellow at the base of each petal, raises its tiny terminal cluster flower between leaves in search of pollination. Like many of nature’s most beautiful species the flower spring beauty holds a secret. Unlike almost every other living entity, plant or animal, it does not have a fixed number of chromosomes. For instance humans always have 46 chromosomes, whereas the chromosome numbers vary from one individual to next with this wondrous flower. One study showed that the number of chromosomes in spring beauty varied widely from one site to another; perhaps a sign that the number of chromosomes is related to environmental conditions. The rhizome attached to the root of this inconspicuous plant is very starchy and is sought after by deer and humans who understand it tastes like chestnuts when roasted. Eastern Native Americans held this plant as plentiful bounty because of its unusual and delicate flavor.

A few trout lily (Erythronium americanum) leaves, flowers already gone by, also graced this land where nothing seemed too conspicuous. This wonderful plant, has six yellow petals on a flower that is shaped like a lily, and grows in dense colonies in rich woods. It is one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the forest and is known for its green leaves mottles with reddish shapes that can cover large areas of understory in the forest. Is plant is also known as adder’s tongue and dog toothed violet (although it is not a member of the violet family). Interestingly, long ago Iroquois women chewed the leaves as a contraception to prevent pregnancy.

I stand slowly, my aching back reminding me that I am a great distance in years from childhood. I look east where this mountain drops off and the view of wooded landscape goes on for as far as the eye can see. Although I have witnessed this view hundreds of times I am still surprised by the serene picture and vastness of these woods; a truly humbling experience.

And then this one thought occurs to me. I am no longer closed in dark rooms nor have I been for many years. I am alive. I am free. And I have my whole life in front of me to admire these northern forests.

Written for in May 2011.

Click on photo to enlarge.

  • Emily

    What a great post, Bill. You not only talk about Dutchman’s breeches — a plant I so wished I would have been able to see this spring — but I love the behind-the-scenes info, the Native American details, the ants. When I stop at my local arboretum, I can learn the names of things easily enough, but it’s these extras that really make a plant known. Thank you, thank you! 

  • Teresaevangeline

    When I read your title on my reader I thought, I wonder where Bill is going with this!  They are very pretty pantaloons. Beautiful photo.  One of the main things I am so enjoying about being on my land is noticing the symbiotic relationships insects have with plants and plants with them. It’s such a beautiful world, in all its intricate connections, from insects to humans, and all around this circle of life. Your writing is always such a nice reminder.

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks Emily.  I think giving readers (and my students) little pieces and bits of information about a particular plant helps them to remember it better.  Plus knowing more about the natural history and ecology of a plant gives us a better perspective on how we are all connected: plant, animal, soil, rock, air, earth.  We can’t be reminded of that too often in my opinion.

  • Laura Brown


  • Wild_Bill

     Hi Teresa,

    The word pantaloons is so outrageous that I’m glad I finally got to use it in a piece of writing.  It took me several tries to get this photo right.  I wanted the glistening to be pronounced in the background and that was difficult to do.  Finally did it with a close up view and a flash. 

    The “intricate connections” you mention is the whole picture, the big banana, the entire story when it comes to the ecological world.  Somewhere along the line humans decided they were above this and that is when everything started to go hay wire.  Yes, the circle of life, let’s never forget it!

  • Wild_Bill

     Thank you Laura.  It took me a while to compose this one and I will continue to work on it as I do many pieces.  This one is part of a series that I am writing on my personal life in the forest.

  • Sandy

     The pantaloon photo is perfect!  I have never seen dutchmen’s breeches here, and you know I would love to. My friend, Lené, from Counting Petals, posted Spring Beauty today, also. Another plant I hope to see someday. I will bet you classes are lively, and I know for sure that they are interesting. I am so glad that you are out there enjoying what you love.

  • Wild_Bill

     Keep looking you should have dutchman’s breeches in your area in areas that have rich soils and hardwoods (the same for spring beauty)!  They are both small and inconspicuous.  I love teaching my grad students.  They are really curious and very smart. 

  • Crafty Green Poet

    what a lovely photo of a beautiful plant and thanks for all the fascinating details about the interactions with the pantaloons and the insects that live around them! 

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks for the compliment!  That photo came out just right.  Of course all plant species have complex relationships with the flora and fauna around them but this plant is unique in that it has really utilized some pretty special adaptations in bees and ant colonies.

  • Me Ann My Camera

    This is such a lovely post . I appreciate how you describe your experience of finding solace in nature.  I find a peace and trust that assures me of loyalty especially in the predicable returns each spring.  I have never been so fortunate to see dutchman’s breeches, but I hope to some day. Your photo of them are lovely.  The Adder’s tongue is a springtime favourite of mine, Dog-tooth Violet  is the name I chose to use. One year I dug up its root and examined its canine shaped root to understand this naming of it. fascinating! I have found little Northern White Violets on my  very soggy  wet side lawn this afternoon. They will make a grand post topic in a day or so; They are very small and delicate looking.
    Thank you for your comments on my blog.  They are much appreciated. 
     Ann in New Brunswick, Canada

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Ann, I really like the notion of loyalty of the seasons in how they return each year.  Aren’t we lucky to live in places that have four seasons?  Isn’t it interesting how many names trout lily has?  Dog tooth violet, trout lily, adder’s tongue,  wow!

     Can’t wait to see your post on northern white violets, I love the energy in your blog.

  • Barbara

     The interconnections, the past, present, future all of earth’s inhabitants in a never-ending cyclical web – you describe it so beautifully Bill…Like you my joy is in the moment, the discovery, the recognition and rapture of the natural world. You describe your journeys in nature with so much awe and respect, how could anyone reading this essay not be touched with wonder and want to participate with you in the dance of life?

  • Ratty

    I always love your stories. This look at flowers is a good one. And I learned something about these particular flowers. I was recently looking at some spring beauties and not knowing what they were, but now I do.

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks Ratty, I’m really happy that I was able to help you identify a flower that you had located.  There are so many flowers in the spring it takes a lot of time to learn each one.  I’ve been working on it for my whole life and still have a lot to learn.

  • Wild_Bill

     Thank you Barbara, I’m so glad that you enjoy what I have to say about the natural world.  I loved your description “Like you my joy is in the moment, the discovery, the recognition and rapture of the natural world.”  This kind of says it all doesn’t it!

  • Montucky

     As always, Bill, I enjoyed reading your thoughts and feelings about the forest and seeing your photos. So refreshing! 

  • Find an Outlet

    Every time I read one of your posts I long for the soft woods of New England. Dutchman’s breeches are one of my favorite plants from back east, along with their cousins the bleeding heart—same species Dicentra. Both are myrmecohorous, but I didn’t know that until I read this post! I must have drawn these two plants a hundred times, and did a pen and ink illustration of Dutchman’s breeches for the New Oxford American Dictionary. Do you have bleeding heart that far north? What a joy to come across either of these plants (or any wildflower!) in the woods. The photo you took of the Dutchman’s breeches is perfect—the care you put into the composition is evident.

    Do you mean the Iroquois women chewed the leaves of the trout lily to prevent conception rather than contraception? Early population control? I wonder if it worked? Sort of like a morning after chew?

    This must be a glorious time of year for you, and I’ll bet each new wildflower you observe in the spring is just as amazing as the first time you ever saw one. The experience of rebirth resonates in your last line, that you can rejoice in such beauty as you have your whole life in front of you, aching back be damned. If only we could all adjust our attitudes to reflect this celebration. Beautiful post, Wild Bill.

  • Find an Outlet

    Oops, I meant same genus!

  • Kseverny

     Wow, some things i didn’t know there.
    It is the first time i have heard of ants pollinating flowers

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks Montucky I only wished my photographs were anywhere near the caliber of yours! 

  • Wild_Bill

     Yes, I meant conception, I’ll have to change that!  Do not have any idea if it worked.  I didn’t know you were an illustrator too!  How many talents do you have? I’ve seen bleeding hearts in the Connecticut River Valley well into Vermont and New Hampshire, but never in these higher elevation woods, although it would not surprise me one bit if there were isolated pockets of it here and there.

    Life is precious.  I try to appreciate every moment, but it sure would help if this darned back would get better.  Six months now and it just won’t seem to heal despite all the medical attention, etc. it has received.  Life goes on.

  • Wild_Bill

     Actually in this case its not a pollination process but rather a seed distribution process.  There is an infinite amount of information to learn about when it comes to nature.   That’s precisely what makes it so interesting, always new and fun stuff discover.

  • nature-drunk

     I love the pantaloons. They also remind me of some Star Wars character. Thanks for the post!

  • Anonymous

    You do such a wonderful job of describing things – you do both yourself and the object justice and honor by taking the time to note all that is there. The description of your dream starting off the post I very much appreciated as well as its juxtaposition with the tale of your lifelong turning to the wild.

  • Barbara

    Hello again Bill, I always return to your page to read it again and look at any new comments. This time I noticed that “Finding an Outlet” wondered about Bleeding Heart… we have them here in Ontario, a bit north of Portland Maine in terms of level I think…I live close to the southern tip of Georgian Bay which is part of Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes.

    The Bleeding Heart that graces my garden has just blossomed this past week and is simply beautiful. It’s one of my very favourite flowers, actually my whole family love this particular plant and while it’s not wild here, it’s beautiful. I didn’t know it was related to Dutchmen’s Britches – wonderful tidbit of knowledge.

    I noticed in the bush about a month ago, some hepatica, bloodroot, black cohosh starting, and am waiting for Trilliums and lily of the valley. Periwinkle has gone wild from some long forgotten gardens and blooms in unexpected places. The trout lily is finished blooming, but your information about First Nations women (Aboriginal in the U.S.?) chewing it to prevent conception is fascinating. The original people here in North America have so much “traditional knowledge” that has been lost or known only to a few now. It’s wonderful to come across gems such as yours.

    Hope you are enjoying a delicious long weekend – we are finally blessed with warmer weather, some sun, some showers, and the delight of blackflies… one little critter I would be pleased to have ignore me. Ah the northern Ontario woods – those bugs make it so difficult to enjoy them in May. How do your bloodhounds endure them?

    But at least all of us can walk with you without their silent bite and see your forest through your eyes. We are blessed that you share and you doubly so to see them first hand. – Thanks Wild_Bill!

  • Wild_Bill

     Star War characters?  Which ones, this is really funny!  Gave me a real chuckle!

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks for the compliments, I really appreciate them.  It’s a long story but my rough beginnings eventually brought much joy, and a life long curiosity about the forest and all natural ecosystems.

  • Wild_Bill

     Your neck of the woods grows the same woodland wildflowers that we have in western New England!  Your description sounds like walking in the woods in this area.

    Yes, a lot of traditional knowledge has been lost but there are those that strive to preserve it.  Some of the herbal remedies used by Native Americans are very effective, but don’t think I would recommend this particular prevention of conception technique.  Sounds risky to me.

    I wrote a pretty good story about black flies a couple of years ago, perhaps I will post it for your enjoyment!

  • Barb

    Hi Bill, Your ramble through memory/dreamscapes and your actual experience of seeing the tiny new growths on the forest floor make for captivating reading. I learned some new facts about the wildflowers you witnessed/photographed. After a long, cold winter, aren’t wildflowers a wonderful reward! I want to tell you that your profile wasn’t enabled when I tried to click on you from my Blog – of course, I know how to reach you from the “back door” of the Nature Blog Network, but I thought you might want to make sure your profile is enabled. 

  • Wild_Bill

     I liked your thought about wildflowers being the reward at the end of a long, cold winter.  Yes, they are, and how wonderful!  Don’t know what the profile issue is but I will check into it.  Thanks.

  • Gator

    I sometimes feel less free than ever, as I’m trapped in the rat race, paying for kids college, etc. But I still love getting out into the wilderness where I live.

  • Wild_Bill

     Civilization does have its trappings and disadvantages, the key is to remember the wild on our planet and, at least, occasionally get into out and into it.  You are wise to keep doing this.  It helps to maintain sanity, doesn’t it?

  • Annie

    Tonight I poured myself a brandy and sat down to enjoy your post, which I have been saving for a time when I could take the time
    to absorb each word. This was definitely worth the wait for the words captured me with their play. How
    could I not enjoy reading about beautiful spring flowers bursting from the
    warming spring earth? Or, that ants can help with seed dispersal, something I wasn’t aware of until I read this. One of my favorite things about reading your words, other than the sheer joy of experiencing nature through your eyes, is that I always learn something new, something I can share with others who love the earth and are interested in its wonders.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Annie.  After the rough day I just had you can’t imagine how much I appreciate your words.  The natural world has countless secrets, many yet to be discovered.  If I could live a million years I would never tire about learning about nature.  It is so vast.  So unpredictable.  So mysterious.  And so inspirational.

    I love to share all this with others and I pray that they find the Earth inspirational too!

  • Mike B.

    Great post!  You’re subject photo looks a lot like our Pacific Bleeding Heart, and the scientific names are close so I guess they are closely related.  Waking up to what is around us has taught me to appreciate the woods all year round and not just when flowers are blooming.  There is a lot there even in winter!

  • Wild_Bill

    There are quite a few wildflowers in the “Dicentra” genus, so it does not surprise me that you have some on the west coast.  Becoming aware of your surroundings is like a rebirth you are in for a wild ride!  Congrats!

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