Native Prairie Plants – Prairie Crocus
Plants – nature’s goods and services – have had a huge influence on the course of human history, corn for food, cotton for clothing, sod for homes, spices to trade, and quinine to treat malaria. The Galt Museum & Archives Garden of Native Prairie Plants provides a small snapshot of time: plants once sought after for many different reasons, such as the Pulsatilla patens, or prairie crocus, now in bloom.
Widespread and common across prairie grasslands and in the Rockies, the soft purple flower is among the first to appear in spring. The inside of the blossoms may be purple or white. Similar in looks to the true crocus (it blooms around the same time), the prairie crocus is not a bulb; it is a long-lived perennial with a thick woody taproot. The flowers appear before the finely divided leaves develop.
The whole plant is thickly covered with silky hairs. A First Nations legend tells that the Great Spirit gave the crocus its fur coat to keep it warm during cold spring nights. Those fine hairs prevent the wind from hitting the surface of the plant; the temperature at the leaf surface can be 10° warmer than the surrounding air. As further protection, the flowering stalk is short. The flower is heliotropic, turning to face the sun through the day; the shape of the blossom concentrates the sun’s rays at the centre of the flower, further increasing the temperature.
The Blackfoot name, Napi, or old man, refers to the gray, silky, ripe seed-heads that look like grey haired heads. These fluffy seed-heads linger into early summer. As the seeds develop the stalks grow taller, allowing the seeds to be dispersed by the wind. All parts of the plant are poisonous and some people find them irritating to the skin. The Blackfoot understood the characteristics of this plant, and made a tea from the roots to speed childbirth or to cause abortion.
Prairie crocus seeds are available at the Galt Museum Store, or young plants can be purchased from native plant nurseries. They need a sunny spot, and not too much water. Because of their taproot, they will not survive if taken from the wild. More information about the Garden and its various plants is available at www.galtmuseum.com.