Man­i­toba's prairie cro­cus is a prom­ise of spring

Alberta Gardener Magazine - - Contents - By Kelly Leask

Each spring I anx­iously await the mound of snow on top of the flowerbed be­side my front door to shrink away be­cause un­der­neath it one of my favourite plants is wait­ing, and just as ready for spring as I am. Man­i­toba’s pro­vin­cial flower, the prairie cro­cus

Pul­satilla patens has long been a harbinger of spring, a prom­ise and com­mit­ment that the long win­ter is truly over and the green world will awake again, with this small, fierce plant lead­ing the charge.

The first sign of life from my friend re­turn­ing to greet me is a fuzzy bud, soft as puppy ears, pok­ing out of the ground. It will open to re­veal mauve petals that on sunny days will in turn open to re­veal a bright yel­low cen­tre. The satel­lite-like shape of the flower and the way it tracks the sun across the sky al­low it to trap heat in its cen­tre, mak­ing for a warm meal of pollen and nec­tar for hun­gry pol­li­na­tors as they emerge af­ter sur­viv­ing win­ter.

It is in­cred­i­ble for any plant to burst forth flower-first, but es­pe­cially in early spring in a cli­mate as harsh as ours when there is a high like­li­hood of frosts and even late snow. Lit­tle hairs cov­er­ing the stems, leaves and petals of the cro­cus help to trap heat around the plant and pre­vent di­rect con­tact be­tween ice and the plant’s tis­sues. While there are risks and chal­lenges for the plant as­so­ci­ated with grow­ing early in the sea­son, there are also ben­e­fits.

With so few plants in ac­tive growth at that time of year, there is not much com­pe­ti­tion for wa­ter, nu­tri­ents or sun­light. Pol­li­na­tors have lim­ited bloom re­sources avail­able in spring, so they might be in­clined to spend more time among the cro­cuses, re­sult­ing in good pol­li­na­tion and seed pro­duc­tion.

As the sea­son pro­gresses and the tem­per­a­tures rise, so do the seed heads of the cro­cus. By the time the long plumed seeds are ripe in June, the seed heads stretch up to 16 inches above the ground. Cro­cus seeds have de­vel­oped a re­mark­able self-plant­ing adap­ta­tion. When the tiny hairs cov­er­ing the feath­ery tails of the seeds get wet they cause the whole seed struc­ture to squirm and twist, al­low­ing the seeds to corkscrew their way down through the thatch to con­tact the soil. If con­di­tions are right the seeds can ger­mi­nate soon af­ter drop­ping from the seed head. How­ever, if the seeds do not ger­mi­nate af­ter a short pe­riod of time, they will en­ter into dor­mancy and will not ger­mi­nate un­til they ex­pe­ri­ence the cool, moist con­di­tions of spring to break their dor­mancy.

If you are keen to grow prairie cro­cuses in your home gar­den you can start them from seed or find them at a lo­cal na­tive plant nurs­ery. They are slow grow­ing and can be a chal­lenge to start from seed, re­quir­ing six weeks of strat­i­fi­ca­tion be­fore ger­mi­na­tion. I would rec­om­mend start­ing them in De­cem­ber or Jan­uary to have them ready to har­den off and plant out the fol­low­ing June. Even with an ex­tra-long first grow­ing sea­son it is typ­i­cal to not see any blooms un­til the third year of growth.

Man­i­toba’s na­tive prairie cro­cuses are not re­lated to Euro­pean cro­cuses (Cro­cus spp.) and the na­tive ones do not grow a bulb. They de­velop a tap­root and do not re­spond well to be­ing moved, so if you go out in search of the first bloom­ing cro­cus in spring, please leave your shovel at home. If you would pre­fer not to have to go far to seek out these de­light­ful lit­tle plants, they can find them­selves quite com­fort­ably at home in the gar­den as well-be­haved peren­ni­als. Plant them in a sunny, well drained spot and you can en­joy them for many years, per­haps right out­side your front door where they will greet you with cheery flow­ers that con­firm spring is fi­nally here.

Cro­cus with bee.

Cro­cus bud cropped.

Cro­cus seed head.

Cro­cus seed head.

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