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Squirrel Corn

Squirrel Corn’s Pollination & Seed Dispersal Strategies

Finely dissected leaves, white heart-shaped flowers and small, yellow clustered underground bulblets that look like corn kernels – these are the characteristics that identify the early ephemeral Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis).  

Sometimes a plant’s strategies for accomplishing pollination as well as seed dispersal can boggle the mind. Squirrel Corn’s fragrance, nectar and pollen attract queen bumblebees who are out gathering food for the first of their larvae. It is a win-win arrangement: young bumblebees are nourished and pollination is accomplished.

Later in the season Squirrel Corn (and many other ephemerals) achieves seed dispersal by once again attracting insects.  Each seed has a tiny packet attached to it (elaiosome) which contains fats and proteins, a highly prized source of food for ant larvae.  Ants collect the seeds and bring them underground where they extract the elaiosomes and feed them to their young.  They then deposit the seeds into their waste pile, a perfect site for germination as it contains fertilizer in the form of ant frass. This type of mutually beneficial seed dispersal is known as myrmecochory.

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Squirrel Corn Vs. Dutchman’ s Breeches

5-16-17 squirrel corn 130There are two white spring wildflowers that have nearly identical dissected leaves, are both suspended in multiple numbers from a single stalk, and have petals that form long spurs within which nectar is located. Their names are Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis). Although Dutchman’s Breeches usually flowers a week or so earlier than Squirrel Corn, they can both be found flowering now.

As their name implies, Dutchman’s Breeches flowers are shaped like tiny pantaloons hanging from a wash line. Squirrel Corn is a close relative of Dutchman’s Breeches. If you look closely you will see that Squirrel Corn flowers have no yellow “waistband” like Dutchman’s Breeches, and their spurs are more rounded, giving the flower more of a heart shape. Squirrel Corn is named for the yellow underground corms, or storage structures, on its roots which are shaped a bit like corn kernels, absent in Dutchman’s Breeches.

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