“Better late than never” is the old adage, and it’s never been truer than this spring. After a particularly brutish and long winter, full of biting cold temperatures and more snowfall than usual, those of us living in the Wild Rose province have only just now gotten our well-deserved reprieve. It’s been warm and sunny for over a week now, and the plants have responded to this new burst of heat and light with sudden, effusive growth. My neighbour’s forsythia has turned on its bright yellow blooms, and it will only be a short time now before the flowering almonds and the crabapples and the lilacs display their substantial (if hayfever-inducing) charms.
I thought I would be too late to spot the wild prairie crocuses blooming up on Nose Hill, but this past week I took a walk up to the park and to my delight, found hundreds of them poking up through the dry, dormant prairie grasses. Nose Hill is an amazing place, a huge, untouched grassland smack dab in the middle of a city of over one million residents. When you’re wandering around up there, especially early in the morning, you can sort of imagine what it would have been like hundreds of years ago before the urban encroachment began. The crocuses are really late this year, but they didn’t really have a chance to shine under all of the snow cover of just a few weeks ago.
Prairie crocuses (also called prairie anemones or windflowers) aren’t the same as the ones you grow in the garden: wild crocuses (Anemone patens, syn. Pulsatilla ludoviciana, Pulsatilla patens) are members of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. The horticultural crocuses are actually part of the iris family and are related to the ones that saffron threads come from. The wild ones, as you can see, are seriously hirsute (which is one of the best words in the English language, hands down!), with bright yellow stamens and gorgeous pale-to-dark purple sepals. The flowers only open during the day, and they usually last only a couple of weeks, so I was lucky to get up there to see them during the brief window of bloom-time. Prairie crocuses only grow in undisturbed soil, which explains why they are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Crocuses often thrive in pasturelands, where grazing cattle and sheep help keep the prairie grasses trimmed back, exposing the flowers to sunlight. (Well, that, and crocuses are highly poisonous and cows and sheep will avoid them. For some reason, the poison doesn’t bother animals like deer, elk, or Richardson’s ground squirrels, who munch freely). Because they don’t like being disturbed, it is not wise to dig wild prairie crocuses up and try to plant them in your garden: not only is this highly damaging to already-diminishing local populations, but it’s likely they won’t even last the summer in your flowerbeds. Go for a walk in the sunshine, like I did, and enjoy them where they grow.
(Oh, and on a side note: Prairie crocuses are NOT pasqueflowers, although you’ll often hear them referred to as such. Pasqueflowers (Anemone pulsatilla) are very similar in appearance, but are usually larger and deeper in colour, and they will perform brilliantly in the garden, given the appropriate hardiness zone. And the so-called “autumn crocuses,” or colichicums, are not related to either the wild crocuses or the spring horticultural crocuses – they’re actually members of the order Liliceae. Confused yet?).