Pasque Flower is a native perennial forb whose flowering stem is an aerial shoot from the underground caudex and is only about 6 inches high at flowering time and covered with fine dense hair.
Leaves are of two types. First appear the basal leaves on long stalks. These are palmately divided into compound lobes with linear leaflets - very frilly. Both the stalk and underside of the leaf have hair. Appearing on the flower stalk is a whorl of stalkless compound leaf-like growths, also with linear leaflets. These are actually the involucral bracts of the flower but are large enough to resemble true leaves. Most have hair like the flower stalk.
The inflorescence is a single flower head atop the aerial stem above the whorl of bracts.
The flower, unlike other Anemones, has petals but they are small or obscure. There are 5 to 8 oblong to ovate sepals, sometimes blue to lavender in color, and also white, especially in some wild populations as in the Dakotas. John Muir (see below) wrote that the Wisconsin flowers were purple. These have fuzzy hair on the outside, without hair on the inside. The pistil terminates in what looks like a fuzzy button (the color varies as the color of the sepals vary). This is surrounded by 150 to 200 stamens with yellow anthers.
Seed: When a flower has been fertilized, the aerial stem elongates to as much as 18 inches high and the ovary produces a number of dry achenes on each of which the style has elongated into a 1 to 2 inch long silvery-purple or silvery-green wisp that waves in the breeze and will transport the achene when it detaches. The plant is considered hazardous (details below).
Habitat: This early spring flower is found in dry sandy hillsides, open woods, rocky outcrops in woods and undisturbed prairies. It grows from a woody caudex which can produce additional stems as the plant ages. It spreads also by reseeding. The plant is low to the ground at flowering time and is easily overlooked. When the seed plumes rise up and are quite visible, flowering time has passed by almost a month. When bloom times were tracked at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden the average spring bloom date was April 12-13. It is the earliest blooming upland prairie species in our area.
Names: The genus Anemone, generally applied to what are called windflowers, is thought by some to be from the Greek anemos, meaning 'wind'. But the studied opinion (see Stern, Ref.#37a, and Ref.#W7) is that consideration must also given to the god Adonis, who in the Greek myth was killed while hunting a boar and from his blood came a red windflower [Anemone coronaria] and the derivation is from an old Semitic word for Adonis. The species, patens, is Latin and means 'lying open', 'spreading apart'. One can conclude that either definition applies as the plant lies open to bloom in cold snowy weather and 'Spreading Pasque Flower' is one of the alternate common names - the name actually used as the South Dakota State Flower (a white version). The common name of Pasque Flower is discussed in Eloise Butler's comments given below. The basis for the recent changing of the plant genus to the Anemones is concisely explained at Flora of North America (Ref. #W7).
Comparison: This plume of wisps resembles the other early blooming prairie species of the rose family, Geum triflorum, to which the name of Prairie Smoke is more correctly applied, but there the seed plume is brick red.
Below: The upper stem bracts form a whorl under the flower head. The pistil is surrounded by 150+ stamens. When the corolla is white, the pistil will be whitish in color.
Below: The downy heads of Pasque Flower are the first of the prairie plants to show in the spring. Without the leaves, it is easy to overlook then against the brown background of the soil and old leaves.
Below: The wispy seed head is composed of the styles of the fertilized flower. Each is attached to a slim brown achene.
Below: A flower of a paler color, the outside of the sepals blending from a silvery blue to white. The styles of the pistil are pure white. White flowers are said to be found in the wild more often than the deeper colors.
Notes: Eloise Butler introduced Pasque Flower to the Garden, first in 1910 on March 25th when she transplanted two plants from Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. She planted more in 1912, '13, '14 '17 '18,19 and '20. Martha Crone planted many times - 1933, '34, '35, '36, '39, '42, '44, '45, '46, '47, '49, and '50. This Pasque Flower species is found in North America from the Great Lakes states westward into the Rocky Mountains, reaching south to Texas and New Mexico in the central plains, and in Canada from Ontario westward to the Pacific coast. Within Minnesota it has been found in most counties except those of the NE quadrant and a few near the Iowa border. The accepted scientific name of the variety in Minnesota (by both the MN DNR and the U of M Herbarium) is Anemone patens L. var. multifida Pritz. There are a number of name synonyms which refer to the same basic plant.
Toxicity: The foliage contains a chemical, Anemonin, that is poisonous and the leaves, when bruised and applied to skin, raise blisters. Anemonin is a powerful irritant which in large amounts causes violent gastroenteritis. A drug obtained from the plant, known as Pulsatilla, has been used in herbal treatments but is considered dangerous. A tincture of Pulsatilla has been used for disorders of mucous membranes, respiratory and digestive passages. Densmore (Ref. #5) lists the plant as being used for lung trouble. The root, mixed with that of Stiff Goldenrod was pulverized and a decoction was made and taken internally. The leaves were dried and pulverized and then "smelled" to relieve headache. Pasque Flower was for some years included in the British and the U.S. Pharmacopoeias. Pulsatilla contains the Anemonin, which acts as a depressant on the circulatory and respiratory systems. An excess amount results in paralysis and death.
Eloise Butler's notes: "However early Easter Sunday is in the calendar, the bells of the Pasque flower proclaim the yearly miracle. Or, to change the metaphor, nearly four weeks ago, on sandy, southern slopes of the virgin prairie, the “goslings,” as children call them, thrust their downy heads above the brown, bare earth, undismayed by succeeding snows and frosts, all the way from Wisconsin to the Rockies. In exposed situations they lie huddled on the ground; but, under the stimulus of increasing warmth, they will peep out from the stretch above the brooding mother earth, from day to day, throughout the month of April.
The scientific name of the Pasque Flower, according to the seventh edition of Gray’s botany, is Anemone patens var. wolfgangiana. It is called a variety because the Pasque flower of Europe was first named. None but a botanist would note the difference between the European and American forms. Britton calls the plant Pulsatilla hirsutissima. Under this name it is known to pharmacists, for it has medicinal properties. The leaves when bruised exhale a pungent odor, which has given rise to other popular names, as hartshorn and headache plant." [ED. Note: All the old scientific names given are now considered as synonyms of the current species] Published in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune April 16, 1911 Full article
John Muir wrote: "The most admirable flower in the estimation of settlers in this part of the new world was the pasque-flower or wind-flower. It is the very first to appear in the spring, covering the cold gray-black ground with cheery blossoms. Before the axe or plough had touched the “oak openings” of Wisconsin, they were swept by running fires almost every autumn after the grass became dry. If from any cause, such as early snowstorms or late rains, they happened to escape the autumn fire besom, they were likely to be burned in the spring after the snow melted. But whether burned in spring or fall, ashes and bits of charred twigs and grass stems made the whole country look dismal.
Then, before a single grass-blade had sprouted, a hopeful multitude of large hairy, silky buds about as thick as one’s thumb came to light, pushing up through the black and gray ashes and cinders, and before these buds were fairly free from the ground they opened wide and displayed purple blossoms about two inches in diameter, giving beauty for ashes in glorious abundance. Instead of remaining in the ground waiting for warm weather and companions, this admirable plant seemed to be in haste to rise and cheer the desolate landscape. Then at its leisure, after other plants had come to its help, it spread its leaves and grew up to a height of about two or three feet. The spreading leaves formed a whorl on the ground, and another about the middle of the stem as an involucre, and on the top of the stem the silky, hairy long-tailed seeds formed a head like a second flower.
A little church was established among the earlier settlers and the meetings at first were held in our house. After working hard all the week it was difficult for boys to sit still through long sermons without falling asleep, especially in warm weather. In this drowsy trouble the charming anemone came to our help. A pocketful of the pungent seeds industriously nibbled while the discourses were at their dullest kept us awake and filled our minds with flowers." from The Story of my Boyhood and Youth
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"