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Botanical Art Worldwide: America's Flora

Dutchman’s Breeches

Dicentra cucullaria

Dicentra cucullaria, or Dutchman’s Breeches, is a fascinating, delicate, and beautiful native spring ephemeral of North America. Growing in rich loamy soils of deciduous forests, it signifies new growth, a transitional stage; blink your eyes and you may miss its fleeting presence. Get a chance to look at it, really observe it, dissect and draw its form, your reward is like opening a present to discover another gift within. The fern-like leaves are beautiful fans, arching above the ground, comprised of carefully organized leaflets. They spring up from smooth pinkish colored tubers that are huddled at ground level in a cluster. The pendent-shaped flowers, with two outer opposite spur-like petals, have subtle topographical ridges and end tips that curl up into little domes. Enclosed within these “breeches” is a central pistil that is flanked by two stamens, hidden from view. Peeking out from the bottom of the outer petals is the distal end of the pistil and two more inner petals, which are connected and visible just below, dangling bell-like. If pollinated, the pistil will form into a green, sleek pod, with beautiful shiny black seeds within. These outer-worldly looking seeds are an ant’s delight. They have translucent fleshy finger-like projections called, elaiosomes, that the ants will gobble up and then discard the remaining seeds into a dump pile. Here, the seeds sit until they germinate to form new shoots.

My accompanying artwork aims to capture the amazing characteristics described above and pay tribute to a well-loved perennial native species. It is done in watercolor and colored pencil on paper and is based on research, direct observation, and photo references that I took while out exploring in nearby Ledges State Park, Boone, Iowa, and in surrounding park areas. Ledges is like no other area in Iowa, representing 96% of the biodiversity of the state.

I am constantly drawn to the smaller things in nature–the complexity of organisms that inhabit an area­–and stop often during hikes to crouch down near the ground, discovering a “forest within a forest.” Drawing is a means for me to untangle, understand, and process the intricacy of form and the myriad of micro and macro functionality–individual parts and smaller systems working together to serve and connect to a larger whole.

The D. cucullaria that I encountered last spring were scattered across the hillside among deciduous trees not fully leafed out. They were in clusters shared with trout lily, hepatica, and a few other spring flowers occasionally being visited by a buzzing pollinator or two (I saw Bombylius major, the large bee-fly, but bumble bees are common pollinators for Dutchman’s Breeches, especially, Bombus bimaculatus). I enjoyed getting a worm’s eye view, took many photos from ground level, and also did some rough sketches from various angles. I had observed and wondered at a few dangling green pods that were no longer surrounded by petals–these were the pistils–and compared them to nearby flowers at various stages. I was intrigued with the architecture of the leaves, stems, tubers, and flowers and discovered there were layers within layers of anatomical elements.

Back in the studio, I continued my research and referenced herbaria plates followed by a few more visits to the field. I wanted to be sure to reveal the contents of these “floral packets” and to convey the structures from deep to superficial in my artwork. Uncovering the morphological differences was also insight into change over time; flowers first appear in the spring, heart-shaped, with the ends of the outer petals meeting together at the base. Some time later, these open up and flare out, revealing the inner petals and the tip of the pistil. Eventually, the petals fall off and leave the green pod that will split open to deposit ripened seeds on the ground. This sequence is part of its transient existence. I wanted to include this story of how these parts open up, one after the other, to uncover what’s inside; the right column of the composition lays it out, from top to bottom.

I spread out my sketches, notes, and at least eight of my best photographs to work out how to showcase the diagnostic characteristics. I drew and cut out the fan-like leaf shapes from paper and positioned them on sticks so I could recreate and control the direction of the light on form. Deborah Lewis, curator of the Ada Hayden Herbarium at Iowa State University, was kind enough to review my work and studies to confirm accuracy. My preliminary drawings are therefore a hybrid of all of this information in graphite on paper that was then transferred to the watercolor ground.

Come spring, I am eager to see green in April and May, as many people are in the Midwest. Botanical Art Worldwide will celebrate native species from around the world this spring and I am pleased to contribute to that effort from my, seemingly small area, when compared to the scale of this global collaboration. Through art I have come to know a native species better and have connected to the botanical diversity and wildness that still creeps up each year in pockets among agricultural fields. I hope that through art others will also find interest, connection, and motivation to protect it.


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Dicentra cucullaria

Dutchman’s Breeches

watercolor and colored pencil on paper

19 x 15

©2017 Kimberly Moss

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

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