The Prairie Crocus is a sure sign that spring has arrived!
(picture taken along the Banff Legacy Trail, copyright Take a Hike With Your Children)
But It Isn’t a Crocus At All!
When these beautiful purple flowers started to poke their heads through the moist spring dirt, and snow, they reminded the early Canadian settlers of the crocuses back in Europe that would bloom in the spring.
A Blanket of Little White Hairs Keep Them Warm
Take a close look at this flower, and you will notice that all parts of the flower are covered in hundreds of tiny little hairs. These hairs act like a blanket – they stop snow from clinging to the plant or flower. In addition, this “blanket of hairs” buffers the plant from cold and wind.
The Prairie Crocus Flower Is A Solar Panel Engineered by Mother Nature!
The saucer shaped flower, fuzzy centre of the crocus and the highly reflective petals help produce warmth for this early flower. Tiny insects will also “hang out” in the centre of this flower to keep warm.
It is a sun seeker, the flower tracks the sun across the sky, and this allows it to stay warm longer.
The petals open in sunshine and close again in the evening and in cloudy weather, which helps it retain the heat it has collected throughout the day.
Where will you see them?
- In the prairies!
- Dry, open woods, they can tolerate some shade
- Sandy, well drained soils
- South facing slopes and meadows
- Sunny, hot, dry areas
This Flower Has Many Adaptations For Survival
Early Bloomer – by blooming early, it does not need to compete with other flowers for the attention of pollinators – bees and insects.
Goes to seed in early June – therefore avoiding the hot, dry summers. If these seeds have received moisture in early June, they will germinate right away, if they didn’t, they will go dormant, and germinate the following spring.
Winds carry the seeds to new places – a beautiful fluffy seed head will replace the purple flower, and a new Prairie Crocus colony will start.
Self-planter – a common trick used by prairie plants. The spear-shaped seeds are covered with backward pointing hairs, which guarantee that the seed will stick wherever it lands. This is ideal after a fire, as these spear-shaped seeds take hold in the soft soil that is present after a fire.
It is a perennial – it grows every year, and can live to the age of 50!
Caution, it is Poisonous !
They are poisonous when eaten, and if you pick them, they can irritate the skin.
However, the First Nations Peoples used the poisonous properties to their advantage: poultice for rheumatism and other muscular pains, stop nosebleeds and draw out infection in cuts and boils. They are used in homeopathic mixtures. A word of caution, only a qualified individual should prepare these mixtures.
A Black Foot legend about the Prairie Crocus
(adapted from Terry Willard Ph.D., Edible and Medicinal Plants of he Rocky Mountains and Neighboring Territories.)
A young Indian boy was ready to go through his ceremony of manhood in the spring. He was sent into the hills with nothing but a buffalo rob for warmth. He was to spend three days of fasting and vision questing. On the first night, he wrapped his buffalo robe closer to him to ward of the cold. He heard a little voice say “thank you”. He looked down and saw a little white flower. The little flower said, “don’t unwrap the robe, it is cold out there.”
The boy was thankful for the company, and didn’t feel so alone. He spent the entire next day speaking with the flower.
By the third day the boy was getting worried, as he had not had a vision, and without seeing a vision, he would not become a man. The little flower assured the boy as they looked at the bright yellow sun reflecting off the purple mountains, not to worry.
The third night was the coldest of them all, and the boy and flower huddled together under the warmth of the buffalo robe, and just before dawn a vision came to the boy – a vision of a great medicine man. He saw himself taking care of many tribes of people. In the morning the boy was so grateful for his new powers and for the friendship that the little flower had showed to him. In thanks, the boy told the flower that it could have three wishes.
The little crocus said “ I world like to have the warmth and beauty of the yellow sun at my heart, the grace of the purple mountains all around me and a heavy fur robe to keep me warm” To this very day, the descendants of this little flower have been given all three to keep them warm and happy in the early spring.
It has the honor of being a Provincial Flower
Manitoba’s to be exact! The Prairie Crocus (Pulsatilla ludoviciana)—was officially adopted as Manitoba’s official flower in 1906.
Edible and Medicinal Plants, Terry Willard Ph.D.