By Meera Sinha, Master Gardener in Training (MGIT)
The prairie crocus, unlike its common name suggests, is not a crocus (Iris family) but an anemone, Anemone patens, syn. Pulsatilla patens, and belongs to the buttercup or crowfoot family (Ranunculaceae). Cut-leaved anemone (Anemone multifida), long-fruited anemone (Anemone cylindrica), and Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis) all native to Manitoba, are closely related to it.
Anemos = wind (Greek), patent = lying open (Latin), pulsare = to beat (Latin)
It has many different common names throughout North America: Pasque flower, wind flower, prairie smoke, blue tulip, ears of the earth, gosling flower.
It is a long-lived (several decades) flowering perennial herb occurring throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. It can be found on the sunny, wind-swept, dry, uncultivated native prairie and in open woods.
In early spring, the hairy flower emerges from a single hairy stem. The flower is one to two inches across with blue-violet sepals that are pointed at the tips. The sepals are usually 6 in number and arranged like a saucer. They reflect the sunlight towards the center, warming it by as much as 10º C above the surrounding temperature. Numerous yellow stamens and a tuft of greyish pistils in the warm center act as a food source and a warm-up shelter for pollinators in early spring. The flower is open during the day and closes at night. The narrowly segmented leaves emerge after flowering and the risk of frost is over. They stay green throughout the summer.
As the flower fades, the numerous pistils develop into a hairy seed head (reminiscent of clematis and three flowered avens, Geum triflorum) while the hairy stalk elongates. The spear-shaped seeds (achenes), with their distinct characteristics of backward pointing hairs on a water absorbing tail, ensure successful self-planting.
The root is a woody taproot. Early on the root system develops a symbiotic partnership with mycorrhizae which assists in the establishment of the seedling by exchange of nutrients. In the first two years, the plant develops an extensive and deep root system that adapts well to the drought prone prairie environment.
American Goldfinches and black birds eat the seeds of the prairie crocus in the summer. While the hairy prairie crocus is unattractive to the grazing livestock, the ground squirrels, deer and elk are undeterred by its defense strategies. The plant contains a poisonous alkaloid, protoanemonin that can cause skin irritation and gastrointestinal symptoms when ingested.
The First Nations Peoples were aware of the plant’s properties and used it to treat rheumatism and muscle pain with the application of poultices. They were aware of the danger of ingestion.
The massive loss of prairie habitat has resulted in a decline of the prairie crocus and as a result its conservation status is under review in North America. It is not yet on the Endangered Species Act list, although it is at risk in Nunavut and Ontario. In the United States it is critically endangered in Utah and possibly extirpated in Kansas. In Europe it is on the list of endangered species of vascular plants (Red List).
If you wish to grow prairie crocus in your garden, please note that it is unethical to dig up wild native plants. According to Ethical Gardener’s Guidelines (Johnson, Lorraine; 100 Easy to Grow Native Plants, Whitecap Book, 2005) one should obtain native plants from seed, garden, or nursery and buy only wildflowers and ferns certified by the vendors as “Nursery Propagated.”
Prairie crocus plants can be purchased from native plant nurseries and it can be successfully grown from seed with a little care. The prairie crocus likes a well-drained sandy or gravelly soil in full sun to light shade.
Find further instructions on how to grow prairie crocus in your garden in this Fact Sheet from Shirley Froehlich, former owner of Prairie Originals Native Plant Nursery http://prairieoriginals.com/PRAIRIE_CROCUS.pdf .