After a long winter purple and white crocuses are finally peeking out in Ottawa gardens. As pretty as they are, my heart will always belong to the prairie crocus, which braves the frosts and high winds on Calgary’s Nose Hill Park.
What’s in a name?
First of all, the prairie crocus isn’t a crocus at all. It’s an Anemone, part of the Buttercup family. It’s miles away on the family tree from the pristine European crocuses of the Lily family. The early-blooming plant reminded homesick European settlers of their crocuses back home, so we can thank them for the mix-up.
As much as we’d like to believe prairie crocuses are unique Canadian snowflakes, they’re found all over the northern part of the world. They’re pretty common in Russia and Asia, and from the Yukon to New Mexico. You won’t see them in Ontario though: they stop once they reach Manitoba.
Anemones are imposters. They don’t have true petals. The pale purple parts are actually sepals, modified leaves that protect the bud. Who do they think they’re fooling? The real leaves are fun fractals, and don’t pop up until the flower has faded.
The flower is also the first thing to pop out of the ground. No leaves, no stem, just the flower. It’s only after a few days that the stem starts to grow, pushing up the flower like an elevator.
Satellite dish blooms
Okay, so those fake petals are good at one thing: heating up the reproductive parts. They reflect sunlight into the flower’s centre, which can be up to 10 C warmer than the surrounding air. Some cold-blooded spring insects take advantage of this mini-sauna.
Prairie crocuses are true Canadians, and have the beard to prove it. They’re covered all over in little white hairs, from sepals to root stem.
After those fake sepals fall off, each tiny fruit gets a feathery hair. What for? Flying on the wind, of course! It works just like dandelions. Their parachutes are just longer and more languorous. They’ll start flying away during the summer. Once they reach the ground, the seeds plant themselves. Literally. The seeds are spear-shaped with backward pointing hairs. When the hairs get wet and dry they contort, pushing the seed into the leaf litter and soil. Once successfully planted this flower is slow growing, and won’t bloom for three to four years.
More than meets the eye
Prairie crocus flowers pop up in clusters that all come from the same woody taproot. These taproots flower year after year, and some can live up to 50 years. A large specimen can be a foot long and shoot up 40 blossoms at once.
Flowers in peril
As their name suggests, prairie crocuses are fans of open grassland. They love sunbathing and sandy soils. In fact the flowers only open up if it’s sunny. On cloudy days you’re out of luck. You’ll also see many more on the prairie after a fire, because the long grasses blocking out the sweet sun have burned away. However, because open grassland make such great farmland, the patches of wild prairie in Canada are getting smaller and smaller. This means there are much fewer prairie crocuses in Canada today than when bison roamed the plains. Much fewer bison too for that matter, but that’s a tale for another day.
The early flower gets the bee
There are advantages to arriving early. One is getting the full attention of hungry bees and other pollinators waking up from hibernation. Another is rising earlier than competing plants and taking full advantage of the sun. However, if there’s a frost and the temperature drops to -5 C, it’s a problem for seed production.
It isn’t easy being purple
Being one of the first flowers on the prairie is great, but it comes with some risks. Hungry herbivores consider it a delicacy after a long winter of dry grass and twigs. The plant’s furry hairs are an adaptation to prevent it from being eaten. It also contains an irritating substance that causes blistering in domestic sheep. However, these defenses don’t seem to deter the deer, elk and ground squirrels that feast on the blossoms. Some Indigenous peoples used the plant’s poison to treat rheumatism, muscular pains and nosebleeds.
There you have it, some of the wonders of the prairie crocus that isn’t actually a crocus.