One of the first harbingers of spring—frequently spotted on prairies, foothills and mountain meadows—the pasque flower (Pulsatilla spp.) is also a favourite early bloomer in cultivated rock gardens, scree gardens and mixed borders.
The showy, bell-shaped blossoms range from lilac to purple, blue, red, pink, pale yellow and white, all with bright yellow anthers. Each flower is 2.5 to 10 centimetres wide, with five to seven sepals (modified leaves) that look like petals. The clump-forming pasque flower, some species hardy to Zone 4, grows 10 to 38 centimetres tall. Its lovely blooms peek through in late March or early April.
A member of the buttercup or crowfoot family (Ranunculaceae), the pasque flower develops quickly in spring, first sending out a hairy stem with a whorl of bracts and a flower bud (usually only one or two flowers from each small root)—all covered with soft down. The flowers bloom before the leaves appear, opening in sunshine and closing in the evening or in cloudy weather. When the blooms fade after about two weeks, the lacy, deeply cut, grey-green leaves expand and the flowering stalk elongates. The seed heads are fluffy, like a dandelion’s, and will disperse on the wind.
As the plant matures, the woody rhizome just beneath the soil gets larger and stores more energy, giving rise, each year, to a new growth of leaves and flowers.
All in a name
The pasque flower’s name is derived from its timely bloom, which corresponds to two important religious festivals. Originating in the Middle East, the word Pesach means Passover, and was once the name of the flower. Later, the French altered the name to passefleur or “pasque flower,” referring to the plant’s habit of flowering around Easter.
Other common names include prairie smoke (because of its seed heads blowing in the wind); goslinweed (for its downy buds that look like baby geese); prairie crocus and May flower.
Inset photo: P. vulgaris