Dutchman’s Breeches

Dutchman's Breeches by Jennifer Schlick
Dutchman's Breeches by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Dicentra cucullaria

These are no knickers, Dutch or otherwise,
but a yellowed tooth the bumblebee drills for nectar
with her long strong tongue.

Where some see underwear, others —
judging from the common names — see hats,
white hearts or earrings, even butterfly collections.

It’s useful to know what you’re looking at.
Some wasps have learned how to steal nectar
by chewing a hole at the top,
where the Dutchman’s foot would go
into the breech.

I once spotted a white crab spider
hanging from the end of the line
like one more flower,
waiting for an undiscriminating drinker,
the trap of its legs set.

The Menominee used to use it as a love charm,
lie in wait for their crushes & try to hit them
with a well-aimed white heart.

Staggerweed, the old-time farmers called it,
for what the lacy gray-green leaves
could do to a cow.

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16 Comments


  1. A delightful introduction to a new plant. I like the gentle mockery at the beginning – intended or implied – of our insistence on identifying and then characterising flora via human references.

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    1. Thanks, Dick. Glad that worked for you. I thought of trying to avoid the obvious poetic quality of the common name — after all, Jennifer’s photo certainly reframes what is for us a pretty iconic flower — but in the end, I just couldn’t resist, especially given “staggerweed” and the anecdote about the Menominee.

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    2. (As I wrote, I kept thinking about the old blues song “Staggerlee” and “Jumper on the Line” from R.L. Burnside!)

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  2. Yeah. And what about “Lady Slippers”. I don’t see anything ladylike about them. ;-)

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    1. Well, I hope to do pink or yellow lady’s-slippers later on — it’s not in Jennifer’s photoset (yet), but the series won’t be complete without at least one orchid! (On the other hand, I could do another whole cycle just on orchids, probably.)

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  3. Dave,
    I see themes like these in your lines: beauty is an omen; it ensnares.
    Beware the well-aimed whiteheart, when it pierces through, can a blood-red heart be far behind? One bumblebee’s nectar could easily be stolen by wasps—protect the sweet and gentle that comes your way. Some heartbreaks, too, deserve the staggerweed.

    Your poem takes off from an intriguing picture of a flower, and ends up with an “ekphrasis” poem much like those springing from your meditations in Morning Porch. True, “it’s useful to know what you’re looking at.”

    Also beware of things you are looking at: (“knickers, yellowed tooth, strong tongue” — images fraught with risky mnemonics for erotica. Eh wot?) (:) lol.

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    1. The world is ensnaring place, in my view — but unlike (say) the Buddhists, I have no problem with that. Thanks for the close read.

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  4. Interesting… WP says the seeds are spread by ants. No word on what the ants think of plants growing from their middens.

    I’m back from Costa Rica, and have been busy catching up on things. (New iPhone… having fun with apps!) While in C.R., I saw a few lines of leafcutter ants… amusingly, a half hour after one tour guide had us leaning off the path to watch them going down a tree, we crossed another line of them… carrying their flags square across our own path! Apparently, 30% of Cost Rica’s leaves are harvested by those ants, all to be fed to their fungus gardens. I imagine the fungi would handle alkaloids like those in the Dutchman’s breeches….

    Apropos of “nothing”, have you seen the Futility Review. The Zen of despair…. ;-)

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    1. Yeah, they’re like the trilliums in that regard (see my Purple Trillium poem earlier in the series). I’m not sure the sort of ants that do that occupy a colony long enough to be displaced by plants they’d inadvertendly planted. As I recall from a Natural History magazine piece on the subject some years ago, the plants evolved this adaptation specifically to take advantage of colony-abandonment patterns.

      Cool that you were able to visit CR. When I resume my Bestiary series, I should definitely consider leaf-cutter ants.

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  5. So many clever linguistic turns here: it’s amazing that the tone remains brisk and sober, while you’re turning cartwheels like “long strong tongue” and “dutchman’s breech.” But it does.

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  6. Have some of these in my shade garden…

    I especially like the crab spider for some reason, maybe because it also takes one off in a new direction via the name. And the white on white is pleasing, maybe even a little Frostian, as “Design” popped into my head: “A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth, / And dead wings carried like a paper kite.”

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    1. I don’t remember that poem — I’ll go look it up right now. Thanks!

      (Update: five minutes later)
      A lot of nice lines, but Frost’s conclusion sucks. What anthropocentric bullshit.

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      1. Very crabby. Cute crabby, even.

        Of course, I am part of at least three generations of women who have had spider struggles! My daughter and I both had major spider-bite troubles, and my mother was bitten by a brown recluse. Luckily she was on allergy shots, and they say that helped, but her arm was black to the shoulder. Spiders are interesting, but I don’t want to get too close.

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