Conservation Corner

Dutchman’s Breeches, the Flower with Ants in its Pants

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

Most people wouldn’t consider getting ants in their pants to be a good thing. In fact, it sounds downright uncomfortable. But there is a pair of pants flower that welcomes them because they help it reproduce.

One of the first spring flowers to emerge from winter’s sleep is Dutchman’s breeches. You can see these minute, delicate and fanciful-looking flowers as early as the first week of April. Look for them on the forest floor, especially on rich slopes, along bottomlands, or beside streams. They grow throughout Missouri, except for the bootheel.

Watch where you step though, since Dutchman’s breeches grow less than a foot off the ground and are smaller than a dime. Clusters of these miniature flowers hang down from leaning stalks which are about five to 10 inches long. The leaves are located at the base of the stalks and look like tiny ferns. The flowers are white, or sometimes pinkish, and have the most unusual, yet exquisite shapes. A pair of distinct lobes at the top swoop down gracefully looking a little like a “W”. Two small “wings” seem to emerge at the bottom of the W just above a down-facing, banded bulb. There’s a hint of yellow at the base of the flower.

Dutchman’s breeches are considered ephemeral spring flowers because they bloom for only a short time between the first warmth of spring and when the trees leaf out, which would keep the low-lying flowers from getting sunlight.

These unique flowers get their name because they resemble breeches, the kind of pants men used to wear. Breeches were short pants that ended at the knee and were popular in the 1700s. On their thin stalks, Dutchman’s breeches even appear to be hanging upside down from a clothesline.

One interesting thing about these flowers that look like pants is they attract ants. The seeds of Dutchman’s breeches contain a fleshy part that ants find very tasty. When a small army of the busy bodies collect the seeds and bring them back to their nests, they feed on the parts they like. Then the ants discard the rest of the seed into their waste piles. It is the part they leave behind that germinates to form a new plant. The seeds even have the benefit of getting fertilized from the waste left behind by ants. Once planted by the ants, Dutchman’s breeches spread by underground tubers. When it comes to reproduction, you might say that the ants give Dutchman’s breeches a leg up.

Now that you know about this amazing relationship, be on the lookout for Dutchman’s breeches on a forest floor near you. It turns out that ants and these pants are a perfect fit.

For information visit www.MDC.mo.gov