Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)
Look for tufts of silky leaves growing from a perennial root crown, about 6" tall. The leaves are divided into wispy leaflets, generally in threes. The silver dollar sized flowers lack petals; what a "normal" person would call the petals are technically sepals, forming a cup-shaped calyx around a cluster of waggly yellow stamens. (Calyx is what the sepals are called collectively. If they were petals, it would be called a corolla. Botany, boom.)
Flowers, which come up before the leaves, are shades of purple, from deep mauve to pale lavender. They have silvery hairs on the outside, with smooth, lighter colored inner surfaces. Although you might find a rare white P. patens, it's more likely what you're seeing is the western pasqueflower, P. occidentalis, or one of the Anemone species.
The flowers poke upright when they're new, then hang down like a bell as they mature, and finally give way to little smokebombs of tufted hairs as they set fruit.
RangeP. patens is found in the boreal zone (45°-65° latitude) all around the northern hemisphere. It's fairly common in the the western region of North America, from Alaska down to New Mexico. The pasqueflower prefers drier places than many of its Ranunculaceae cousins. Look for it in grasslands or open rocky (often south-facing) slopes, in steppe to subalpine zones. (Side note. Steppe communities are basically grassland prairies and plains, where the only trees found are the ones growing by water, and the subalpine region is found just below the treeline. The elevation of these zones can vary dramatically based on where you are in the world.)
What's in a Name?
"Pasque" is from the original Latin word for Easter, Pascha. You can usually find these flowers blooming around the Easter holiday...oftentimes before the snow is even off the ground. The species name patens means "spreading," and is one you see a lot in the plant world. Pulsatilla is derived from the Latin pulso, meaning battered or beaten. This might be because the flowers, top-heavy on their delicate stems, bob around and seem battered by the wind.
This segues nicely into a quick chat about anemones. Most (but not all) sources agree that anemones were named for the Greek anemos, "wind," hence the common name of windflower. Maybe, as some say, it's because the flowers only open when they're beaten by the wind, or on the other hand, won't open if the wind is blowing.
Maybe the Greek wind gods, the Anemoi, use these flowers to herald their arrival in spring. Or maybe (and this is the one I like to believe) they're windflowers because their seeds are so obviously and perfectly adapted for wind dispersal. Their tiny nut-like achenes (a one-seeded fruit) sport feathery plumes that just beg to be blown and tumbled across an open prairie. Pulsatilla patens shares pretty much all characteristics with those of Anemone, except the hairy tails of their fruits are long like a kite. Indeed, pasqueflower is often cited as Anemone patens.
Common names for this plant can be confusing. It's sometimes called prairie smoke (in reference to the hairy fruits), although this is more widely accepted as the common name for Geum triflorum. Many sources list it as prairie crocus, although the garden-variety crocus we all know and love is actually in the iris family. It's also known as the Easter flower, May Day flower, cutleaf anemone, and probably a host of other regional names.
As with all of the Ranunculaceae crew, the pasqueflower contains poisonous compounds that can make you really sick, causing nausea, dizziness and a drop in blood pressure. And as with pretty much all poisonous plants, there are numerous accounts of people using it medicinally to treat an array of ailments. Here's what Montana Plant Life has to say...
Use of pasqueflower reportedly lessens sexual excitement. It does not diminish sexual power but rather strengthens it by lessening excitement. A drug derived from the chopped whole plant induces vomiting and irritation of the kidneys. In high doses it acts as a depressant on the central nervous system and the heart. A decoction of the plant was used by the Blackfoot Indians to speed delivery of a child.Yeesh. As always, proceed with caution. Plants are crazy dangerous. Durr.
I did think it was interesting, however, to find so many references to using mashed pasqueflower leaves as a "counter-irritant" for bruises, sore muscles and rheumatic joints. Is this like when you have a toothache and someone offers to stomp on your foot to distract you from the pain? Must be! I do know these leaves are covered in little hairs, and handling them too much can be really irritating to sensitive skin.
Being a common plains wildflower, the toxins in pasqueflower can be a problem for domestic grazing animals. I've also read that dense stands of pasqueflower is an indication that the land has been overgrazed, but can't find any decent explanation as to why this is. Are they pioneer species, the first to colonize the disrupted ecosystem, or are they just growing in abundance because grazers selectively avoid them?
I did find some interesting reading on the decline of P. patens populations in boreal forests due to decreased grazing and increased fire suppression. As domestic grazing declines and normal forest fire cycles are disrupted, the vegetation undergrowth gets thicker and more closed-in. This has a pretty drastic effect on many species in the boreal ecosystem, especially those that grow in open sites with relatively small amounts of forest litter.
By all means! Seeds are easy to collect and don't require cold stratification, although the Native Plant Network does recommend a 60 day cold spell. You can also divide clumps or take root cuttings in spring or late fall. Keep them in the sun, in fairly dry soil, and know that plants might go dormant in drought conditions. The flowers are lovely, and the feathery leaves last well into the summer. Being such an early bloomer, pasqueflowers provide crucial nectar reserves for early emerging wild bee pollinators. Try some in your rock garden! Send me pictures.