Manitoba's prairie crocus is a promise of spring
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.