Veterinary Medicine Library

Dutchman's Breeches & Squirrelcorn (Dicentra cucullaria (L.) Bernh. & Dicentra canadensis (Goldie) Walp.)

| Description | Distribution | Conditions of poisoning | Control | Toxic principle | Clinical signs | References

Dutchman's Breeches


Dutchman's breeches is a low, delicate herb, with slender leafstalks and flowerstalks, both rising from an underground, scaly bulb. Its lacy leaves are 3-parted and finely divided. The flowerstalks are 5 to 10 inches long and bear several nodding blossoms 1/2 to 3/4 inch long. The blossoms are odorless, white, and flattened; their peculiar shape suggests the common name of the plant. Seeds are produced in small spindle-shaped pods.

A closely related Dicentra canadensis (squirrel corn) grows 6-12 inches tall from a horizontal rhizome with small round tubers at the base of the plant. Below ground it has a long rootstock bearing yellowish flattened, orbicular corms. Other than the fact the spurs of D. canadensis are short and not divergent, the two species of Dicentra are very much alike, except that squirrel corn has fragrant flowers.


Both Dutchman's breeches and squirrelcorn occur throughout the state in wooded areas. Dutchman's breeches is in many places abundant, especially on wooded slopes that have well-drained soil and rich deposits of leaf mold. Squirrelcorn, although preferring the same habitat, is much rarer.

Generally Dicentra spp. grow naturally in rich, moist woodlands of eastern to midwestern North America, ranging from New York and southern Ontario to northern Alabama and as far west as eastern Kansas and Nebraska.

Clinical signs

Eating the leaves and roots produce poisoning similar to that of bleeding heart, a common garden plant. The most common symptom of poisoning by Dutchman's breeches and squirrelcorn is a staggering gait, which gives the common name staggerweed to both plants. After eating these plants, cows give less milk.

Experimental feeding of these plants to steers caused sudden trembling which increased in severity, frothing of the mouth, ejection of partially digested stomach contents, and convulsions. The eyes became glassy, and the animals went down and moaned as if in pain. Death from Dutchman's breeches poisoning is rare, particularly if animals are kept away from the plant after the first symptoms appear.

Conditions of Poisoning

Dutchman's breeches and squirrelcorn are among the earliest of the spring plants, blossoming in April and May. Animals turned into woods pastures for early spring grazing browse the leaves and, especially after rains, pull up the bulbs and eat them. Cows are poisoned more frequently than horses, while sheep are said not to be affected.


Where Dutchman's breeches is abundant in pastures, keep cows out until other forage is plentiful -- usually late in May. Let sheep graze infested pastures first. Although Dutchman's breeches is hard to destroy, heavy grazing by sheep is reported to nearly rid woods pastures of this pest.

Toxic principle

Isoquinoline alkaloids.

Other References:

Dicentra cucullaria entry in Wikipedia

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