The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 4 (Poisonous Plants), Chapter 2: Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn

Table of Contents

Dear Wood Folk,

You’ve likely heard of or seen the plant bleeding heart. I have some planted over the graves of my beloved pets. Dutchman’s breeches (dicentra cucullaria) and squirrel corn (dicentra canadensis) are the native relations to bleeding heart in Ontario.

Dutchman’s breeches have yellow “waistbands” on their upside-down knicker shaped flowers, while squirrel corn has entirely greyish white flowers with rounder “leg bands”. Both are pictured below.

Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis)
Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis)

Below the soil, Dutchman’s breeches have white to pink tiny tubers, while squirrel corn has yellow tiny tubers.

Not-so Edible Uses of Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn

These dicentra species contain toxic isoquinoline alkaloids, most concentrated in the small tubers. These are considered poisonous to all mammals. While it would take a large quantity of this plant to overdose, it’s not recommended for human consumption.

Activated charcoal is the typical first line treatment for ingesting plants with isoquinoline poisons.

Medicinal Uses of Dicentra SPP.

While these plants have varied traditional use, there’s even more promise for the future. The plant kingdom makes thousands of different isoquinoline alkaloids, many of which have been isolated and synthesized for modern Western medicine. Dicentra’s distant relation opium is one of these plants and a couple of its alkaloids are the common analgesics morphine and codeine. Someday, similar medicines may come from our featured dicentra plants.

Growing Dicentra SPP.

This species is typically propagated by division of the roots in early spring or fall. The seeds are difficult to germinate. The seeds are spread in the wild by ants, which is typical of spring ephemerals. There’s an oily stub on the seeds made of elaiosome, which is irresistible to ants. If you want to read more about this check out Spring Ephemerals and Elaiosomes from the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. They suggest taking a magnifying glass to a seedy patch of spring ephemerals and watching the ants carry seeds away.

Other native spring ephemerals pair well with these two dicentra species. Some suggestions are blue cohoshes, large-flower bellwort, leeks, spring beauties, and wild ginger. These plants are all an early food source for pollinators. Ferns are a great pairing that’ll take over in the summer. In the wild you’ll find all of these spring ephemerals in deciduous shade: hardwood forests where the sun gets in early spring and then is mostly blocked by tree leaves later on.

While I’ve never had a reaction to touching this plant, many recommend gloves as it can cause skin irritation or a rash. Next month we’re talking about buttercups, a common shiny yellow flower in the wild here. Subscribe to be notified!

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

#ads in References

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Every book I reference that is available on Amazon is linked to with an associates link.


Spring Ephemerals and Elaiosomes from the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Please Like, Comment, Share! We'd love to hear your stories and knowledge! Thank you!

Leave a Comment