An unusual-looking spring ephemeral with a quirky name, squirrel corn blooms mid-spring with puffy white hearts floating 6-12 inches tall above masses of delicately lobed foliage. It’s closely related to common bleeding-heart and dutchman's breeches, which are often found in the same habitats. It prefers to grow in moist, rich, well-drained soils but will adapt to clay and rockier soils with moisture. It prefers consistent moisture in spring while it’s actively growing, but drier conditions are fine in summer. Excessive and long-term moisture, especially during winter, may cause root rot. It needs dappled spring sunlight to produce blooms (too much sun may prevent flowering) and requires shade during the hot summer months. The plant gets its common name from the clusters of kernel-like corms that are often dug up and spread by squirrels and other small animals. It can spread by these corms to cover considerable areas, and it especially relies upon bumble bees and ants for reproduction. A bumble bee’s long proboscis is well-suited to retrieve nectar from the nectar spur, while ants play an important role by carrying the seeds and their nutritious appendages called elaiosomes back to their nests, where the elaiosomes are consumed and the seeds are discarded and allowed to germinate.
Squirrel corn is in the fumitory subfamily of the poppy family, whose members are easily recognized by their peculiar flowers with two dissimilar pairs of petals. Squirrel corn’s flowers hang upside down in the shape of an elongated heart with a frilly, yellow-and-pink clapper. The fragrant blooms contain nectar within two long petals that form nectar spurs, or hollow extensions, that are joined at the base. Dicentra comes from the Greek words dis, meaning “two” or “apart,” and kentron, which means “spur.” While it looks very similar to dutchman’s breeches, which is also in the Dicentra genus, squirrel corn blooms slightly later and its nectar spurs are shorter and more rounded. Its foliage is also more silvery and blue than the leaves of dutchman’s breeches. The most obvious difference lies underground—the corms of squirrel corn look like rounded corn kernels, whereas those of dutchman’s breeches are pinkish and more oval in shape.
Although commonly found throughout Ohio, squirrel corn is not usually grown in domestic gardens. Its clusters of dainty, fragrant flowers would be a unique addition to gardens with other spring wildflowers, and it’s mostly free of pest and disease issues. Divide mature plants to increase bloom production and reinvigorate the plants. To see large colonies of squirrel corn, visit Highland County’s Fort Hill State Memorial, a Native American earthwork that is maintained by Arc of Appalachia.
Native habitats include deciduous and rocky woodlands, gentle slopes and ravines, shaded ledges, and stream banks, and undisturbed sites. Ideal for woodlands, wildflower or native plant gardens, and shady areas. If adding to shady borders, interplant with ferns and other shade-loving perennials that will provide interest once the dutchman’s breeches have gone dormant.
Grows 6-12” tall and wide.
Prefers partial spring sunlight and summer shade.
Performs best in moist, rich, well-drained soils. Tolerates clay and rockier soils with some moisture. Intolerant of wet soils in winter.
Blooms early April to early May with 4-8 hanging, pinkish- or greenish-white, heart-shaped flowers on slender stalks at the end of an erect stem. Two fused, outer petals form rounded nectar spurs that flare at the bottom with a pair of yellowish, wing-like petals that open to reveal short stamens and a 2-horned stigma. A pair of long, vertical ruffles are at right angles to the wings. Fruit capsules are ½” long and are divided into 2 parts that split to release several seeds.
Basal leaves are 3-7” long and wide, triangular, and divided into 3 leaflets with narrow, parallel lobes. Surface is smooth and underside is lighter colored with a powdery, waxy bloom.
The corms are small, yellowish, and round.
The nectar attracts bumble and other long-tongued bees; greater bee flies; butterflies, including red admirals, cabbage whites; and skippers. Short-tongued bees, including honeybees, "rob" the nectar without providing pollination by slicing into the side of the spur rather than brushing over the stigmas where they would pick up pollen. Deer and other mammals avoid browsing the toxic leaves.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The dried tubers have been used to treat syphilis and menstrual symptoms.
Caution: all parts are toxic in large quantities and can cause minor skin irritat ion when touched.
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