Don’t eat me!

The nectar is sweet, but the leaves and flowers of Dutchman’s Breeches are full of toxic alkaloids related to opium or morphine.  It’s pretty to look at, but could be lethal if eaten.

The fern-like foliage looks luscious to grazing herbivores, but they must avoid it, because ingestion of its toxic alkaloids can induce a partial paralysis, labored breathing, and perhaps death.

The fern-like foliage looks luscious to grazing herbivores, but they must avoid it, because ingestion of its toxic alkaloids can induce a partial paralysis, labored breathing, and perhaps death.

They do indeed look like pantaloons drying on the clothesline, with their legs sticking straight up from the waistband below.

They do indeed look like pantaloons drying on the clothesline, with their legs sticking straight up from the waistband below.  Looking at the structure of this flower might remind you of its close relative, Bleeding Heart which also has fused petals growing upward from the floral base.

Dutchman’s Breeches flowers early in the spring, about the time that the queen bumblebees emerge from their winter lethargy.  Flying low to the ground, bumblebees seek out these sources of early nectar by grasping onto the bottom of the flower (which is actually the top of the breeches, since they are hanging upside down) and pushing their head and long tongues into the pantaloons where the nectar is located.  Only the larger and longer-tongued bees can reach the nectar source; honeybees and other, smaller bees are excluded.

As the bumblebees retract their head from the flower, pollen is deposited on their head and back, thus serving as a pollination source for the next flower visited.

Black Swallowtail butterflies also have a long enough proboscis to reach the floral nectar, as this

Black Swallowtail butterflies also have a long enough proboscis to reach the floral nectar, but they probably do not perform the pollination service required since their long legs can grasp onto other, non-pollen sources on the flowers.

As occurs in other spring woodland plants, ants play an important role in transporting the seeds of Dutchman’s Breeches to new locations in the forest.  Using this strategy of “myrmecochory” (literally, myrmeco = ant; chory = dispersal), the plant packages its seeds with a nice fatty treat for the ants who cart it off to their nests, eat the lipid-rich elaiosome attached to the seed, and then “discard” (or “plant”) the seed in their refuse pile.

An ant grasps the fat-rich elaiosome attached to the seed of Dutchman's Breeches to transport it back to its nest.

An ant grasps the fat-rich elaiosome attached to the seed of Dutchman’s Breeches in its mandibles.  Photo by Carol Gracie from New York Botanical Garden.

Another fascinating tale of cooperation between the bugs and the plants.

4 thoughts on “Don’t eat me!

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