Pasque Flowers: Harbingers of Spring

“Early in the spring, when the snow has scarcely melted, the Northern Great Plains are covered with gray-blue flowers that look like smoke hovering over the prairie. These are the fuzzy pasque flowers–“very brave little flowers,” say the Cree Indians, “that arrive while it is still so cold that they must come wearing their fur coats.”
~Melvin R. Gilmore, Prairie Smoke 1929
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Pasque Flowers in their “fur coats” ready to bloom. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

I know of a place that holds a secret.  It’s a small patch of prairie soil.  Once, in early spring, during my first years out of a college, a mentor of mine drove out to this southeast quarter section and first shared what came to be for me, the magic of pasque flowers.   A handful of years later, I ended up living on a small acreage just across the road from that very place.  Ever since, spring has been marked by the hunt for the first blooms of spring.

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

The end of winter is always hard on me. I want sun, warmth in my bones and to sleep with my windows open. To me, stumbling upon a south facing slope with eyes trained on the ground, pasque flowers represent the stretching into the light and reaching out from under the symbolic death of winter. Or as Glimore wrote it, “… pasque flowers again bring their cheering promise of coming spring.”  With snow on the ground and all else still dead or dormant, these slight lavender blooms stand out against the gray browns.  Fragile but with a sense of duty to herald the life that is coming back to the prairie, pasque flowers are, again Gilmore, the “…first gladsome harbingers of the lovely hosts to follow.”

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Ethnobotanist Melvin R. Gilmore, among other great accomplishments, collected Native American uses, stories and lore of the great plains plants and animals, including the pasque flower.  He writes,

“They [Native Americans] have songs and stories about many of the species of plants and animals with which they are acquainted such a song being the expression of the life or soul of the species to which it pertains.”

He relays the song of the pasque flower as translated from the Dakota language:

“I wish to encourage the children of other flower nations

Which are now appearing over all the land;

So, while they waken from sleep and rise from the bosom

Of Mother Earth, I stand here, old and gray headed.”

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

~Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Educator, Northern Prairie Land Trust

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Thoughts of Spring

The anticipation of spring cannot be felt more than by the movement of birds north through the central flyway. The sound of  goose or sandhill crane alone can warm my winter bones.  As we drag through this last bit of prairie winter, the subtle shift from dormancy and symbolic death to light and birth begins with the flight of birds on their spring migration.

I think Leopold says it best,

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the spring.  A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed.  But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat.  His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”

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Image Credit: Lowell Georgia

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Educator, Northern Prairies Land Trust