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…

D. cucullaria, dutchmen's breeches

D. cucullaria, dutchmen's breeches

Dicentra canadensis, squirrel corn

D. canadensis, squirrel corn










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.

spring ephemerals

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

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 Fiddlehead Creek. 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.

dicentra eximia, wild bleeding heart

D. eximia, wild bleeding heart, image courtesy 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.

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.

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!

Dicentra spectabilis, old fashioned bleeding heart

Dicentra spectabilis, old fashioned bleeding heart

D. spectabilis

D. spectabilis, old fashioned bleeding heart white variety


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