Prairie crocus grows best on unbroken prairie soils and should not be transplanted or disturbed.
Prairie crocus grows best on unbroken prairie soils and should not be transplanted or disturbed.

Prairie crocus

Pulsatilla patens

There are 33 species of Pulsatilla, all native to the northern hemisphere. They are low growing, early flowering plants with large, showy blossoms usually in lilac through shades of purple, but they can also be white, pink, reddish, and a few species are yellow. Most of them (but not all) are perfectly hardy here. The flowers are followed by silky seedheads that become fluffier as they mature. Some gardeners find them very decorative while others prefer to deadhead them.

Botanists originally placed these plants in the genus Anemone, and they are still occasionally listed as such. All species are extremely poisonous. First Nations people in Canada used these plants in very small amounts for speeding up childbirth as well.

Pulsatilla patens is known to nearly every farm kid on the Canadian prairies. This is our native prairie crocus and is one of the first signs of spring on the prairies. There are places where they cover all the pastures and ditches with carpets of mauve in early spring. It is the provincial flower of Manitoba.

The First Nations people talk of how the prairie crocus got its covering of fur. The story centers around Wapee, a brave young Blackfoot man who became a great leader. Wapee went on a vision quest where, overwhelmed by loneliness, he was befriended by a prairie crocus. All prairie crocus at that time were smooth and had white blossoms. In response to the flower’s kindness, Wapee sheltered the flower from the cold each night. After the second night, the flower spoke, “Yesterday, Wapee, you were sad because you had been afraid. He who never knows fear is a fool. The wise man learns to overcome it.” When the Morning Star looked out across the prairie the following dawn, the flower said, “You have a kind heart, Wapee. It will lead you to great things.” The next night, still sheltered under Wapee’s robe, the flower said, “Wisdom and a gentle heart will make you a great leader. But when you are bowed with troubles and cares, remember that on a nearby hilltop you can always find peace and wisdom with the mountains in the distance, a little bit of sun, and some flowers.” Before going back to his people, Wapee said to the flower, “Little brother, three nights you have comforted me in my loneliness and brought me visions. Tell me now three of your wishes that I may ask the Great Spirit to grant them to you.” The flower answered, “Pray that I may have the purple blue of the distant mountains in my petals, that men may seek my company and be rested. Second, let me have a small golden sun to hold close in my heart, to cheer me on dull days when the sun is hidden. Last, let me have a warm coat, like your robe of fur, that I may face the cold winds that blow from the melting snow.” The Great Spirit was pleased that Wapee's first thought had been for the well being of the flower and so the petals of the prairie crocus changed from white to mauve and blue like the distant mountains, a small golden sun was given to the flower to hold at its center, and it was given a robe of rabbit fur to keep it warm on chilly spring nights.

Never dig prairie crocus out of the wild, even if it seems like that area has "enough" to take. Wild plants belong in the wild, and most wild crocus will probably die if you transplant them anyhow because they have a thick, woody taproot that doesn't transplant well. The crocus is a wonderful plant to appreciate in nature but it isn't particularly happy in typical heavily modified garden soils. If you're seeking a crocus for an amended or regularly watered soil, a pasque flower cultivar may be a better choice.

If you want to grow prairie crocus in your yard (and it is certainly possible!) make sure you select a location that has native soils, not heavily composted, and you purchase your stock from a reputable native plant supplier. They are fairly easy to grow from seed. Prairie crocus prefer drier areas with well draining soil and full sun.

Don't expect to grow them in a traditional lawn. Prairie crocus may be harmed by mowing. They cannot compete with lawn grasses (which are typically predominantly Kentucky bluegrass), and healthy lawn care practices are unsuited to their needs.

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