Mariton: Clown Pants

April 21, 2015

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager


Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are in bloom right now.  There are a couple of small patches of this wildflower at Mariton.   It is also known as Blue Staggers, perhaps because it is quite poisonous due to toxic levels of alkaloids .

I generally do not support changing the names of plants or birds.  In fact, I rail against having to purchase new field guides when the taxonomists make sweeping changes to nomenclature.  However…  Try to explain why this plant is called Dutchman’s Breeches to a youngster, or even a millennial.  Breeches and Britches  are now archaic words, lost from the modern vocabulary.  (It means trousers or pants for those unfamiliar with the terms.)  Even if you know breeches, combining it with Dutchman is problematic for a lot of people.  My high school math teacher told us stories about his homeland in the Netherlands, but I never saw Mr. Rezelman wear the billowing pantaloons the flower is named for, even when he wore his traditional attire for special occasions.

For local children, Duthchman often refers to “Pennsylvania Dutch”.  But they aren’t Dutch at all, rather they are Deutsche, or German.  These “Dutchmen” are most often portrayed in bib overhauls and straw hats, further adding to people’s confusion about Dutchman’s Breeches.

So, after years of frustration trying to explain pant fashions, and watching the confused expressions of children, I decided to come up with a better name.  It went against my better judgment to coin a new term, but I have ended up  calling  Dicentra cucullaria by the name of Clown Pants.  It works.  Will it stick?  In some ways I hope not.  On the other hand, having a child use their imagination to name their discoveries until they learn common names is not all bad.  And common names should have a common meaning.

Now, if I could just come up with a better name for Jack–in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).