The Promise of Prairie Pasque Flowers

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” —Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Today’s prairie post is brought to you by the color green. Green. Green. Everywhere on the prairie, it’s green.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL

It’s the middle of April, and the prairie is assembling its components. From a distance on the prairie path, it appears the landscape is blanketed in sheets of emerald. But look closely. The prairie is as much shape as color. Ferny fringes of baby compass plants.

Compass Plants (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Ruffles of purple meadow rue.

Purple Meadow Rue (Thalyctrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

These green sheets are an intricate mass of forms and hues. It’s easy to grasp the diversity of the prairie in July, when the tallgrass is a chorus of grasses and flowers. But never is that diversity more evident than in the new sprouts of life in April.

Today, there is one plant remarkable for its absence in this chorus of new growth: the pasque flower. It’s been on the brink of disappearing in years past, but this season, I’m having a difficult time finding it. It’s one of my favorites. Older prairie stewards knew it as Anemone patens.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

When I began as a steward on the prairie, I learned it by its newer scientific name, Pulsatilla patens. “Pasque” comes from the Hebrew word “pasakh,” “passing over.” Despite the flames of early prescribed burns, the early blooming wildflowers are often “passed over” by the flames, often protected by the gravelly soil in which they prefer to grow. Slightly singed or sometimes a bit worse for wear, they make me think of courage.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2016)

The blooms usually occur during the Passover or Easter season; thus the common name “pasque” from the old French language. Maybe that’s the reason they wear fur coats. They are ready for any late snows or cold spells.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

I love the meaning of the scientific names. The old name, Anemone means “windflower.” The newer Pulsatilla” means “sway” or “tremble” —and they do, in the slightest breeze. It takes a bit of plant adaptation to brave the sometimes brutal winds, prescribed fire, and seasonal instability of April, which the poet T.S. Eliot famously called “the cruelest month.” 

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

On the prairie where I am a steward, our numbers of these fuzzy favorites were down to one clump plus a few stragglers in 2017.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2015)

Seeing the imminent demise of a prairie favorite, I watched until the plants went to seed.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

I collected a handful of the fuzzy seeds…

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…and sent them to the propagation greenhouse.

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There, the greenhouse staff worked their magic. Pasque flower seeds have a notoriously poor germination rate, but in 2019, a few small plants appeared. We transplanted them to the prairie. They didn’t take well. Back to the drawing board.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In 2019, hoping to hedge our bets and bring in some new genetic material, we sourced seeds from another prairie and direct sowed the. We also sent more seeds to the greenhouse. We planted. We waited.

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

Just as the pasque flowers would have been making their first appearance in 2020, the pandemic hit. The prairie was closed. I stood outside the gates that month, peering in. Were the pasque flowers up? Did any of them make it? I couldn’t see.

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

By the time we were able to access the prairie, the pasque flower season was over. It was difficult to know if the plants were successful.

In 2021, after the prescribed burn, I went out to check the pasque flowers. Oh no!

Animal burrow and remnants of a pasque flower clump, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

An animal —possibly a raccoon? — had tunneled into the pasque flower area. The “mother plant” was dead. All was lost! Or so it seemed.

During the pandemic, the greenhouse staff kept the work of the prairie going. Unbeknownst to me, more pasque flower seeds continued to germinate. Last week, seeing the demise of our plants on the prairie, I asked if any of the pasque flowers in the greenhouse had made it.

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

More than 50 plants had germinated! They were actively growing and ready for transplanting.

Joy! Hedging our bets, I transplanted two dozen of them to the prairie.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We’ll hold the other two dozen in reserve to grow for another year in the greenhouses, just in case weather—and prairie mammals—decimate this first batch. Then we’ll cross our fingers, water them regularly, and hope.

Because even with more than 400 other species of plants on this prairie…

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

No other plant could take the place of pasque flowers.

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Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35 (1964). He was assassinated four years later. He was the author of five books, including Strength to Love, and the manifesto Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

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Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

Thanks to the good folks at Byron Forest Preserve who donated seeds to help us with our pasque flower restoration.

***Please note: Today’s post was delayed because of WordPress technical difficulties. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

14 responses to “The Promise of Prairie Pasque Flowers

  1. I suggest putting chicken wire cages around the Pulsatilla patens you recently planted to keep the critters from digging them up. The cages should only need to be present for a few months.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great story!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love your dedication and the work of the propagation team!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great story about the work you all do to preserve the prairie
    for us to enjoy and be a part of. Those flowers are really beautiful.
    I have a good feeling that you will be seeing them next Spring!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kathy — I’m grateful that you took time to read and to encourage! The work of prairie restoration is definitely measured in years, rather than days, isn’t it? Keep your fingers crossed for us! Cindy 🙂

      Like

  5. Ah, I love the story of your determination to having pasque flower on the prairie. Here’s hoping for success with the batch of transplants this year!

    Wanted to tell you that my prairie smoke plants arrived a few days ago and I put them in the ground right away. They’re covered with nearly two inches of snow tonight, so I hope they’re tough enough to take that. Can’t wait to see these blooming in my yard!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kim, for reading and for your note of encouragement! I’m rooting for your prairie smoke! Let me know how they weather this big freeze tonight. I’ve been out sheeting my tender spring veggies….. Great to hear from you! Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this story of beauty and dedication. And for your skill and devotion as steward.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Barbara, for taking time to read and comment! There is a team of volunteers, staff, and stewards caring for this beautiful plant — I am just one cog in the wheel. Grateful for your support of prairie! Happy Spring! Cindy 🙂

      Like

  7. Barbara Werner

    Good morning! A lovely story. I have often wondered about this native plant. Best wishesfor your success in pursuing it to the Prairie. Thank you for sharing and caring.

    Liked by 1 person

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