It’s been more years than I’d like to admit, but a long time ago I lived in the mountains southwest of Denver, at the end of a dead-end road, in a house with a million-dollar view. So many things have changed in the ensuing years, among them the population boom and my relocation. But the access to my old haunt, despite a few places where the road has been widened a bit, is the same. Two lane, winding “highway” with twists and turns, sheer drops and lots of traffic.
In spring, there were two primary reasons why it took so long to get back home from my office down in Denver. One, Winnebago season began. And two, the pasque flowers were in bloom. One wouldn’t think that these little plants would have the power to stop a car, but take it from me: Time and again, I’d have to swerve to avoid hitting someone who had barely pulled to the side to dig up the wild pasque flowers.
Name: Pulsatilla vulgaris
Common name: Pasque flower
Hardiness: Zones 4 to 8
Mature height: 8 to 12 inches
Mature spread: 8 to 12 inches
Classification: Herbaceous perennial Landscape use: Rock gardens; naturalized settings; containers
Ornamental characteristics: Dusky purple, loosely bell-shaped blooms precede very fuzzy foliage; low growing basal leaves are deeply incised; wispy, paint brushlike seed heads resemble those of Clematis
Growing along the roadside, Pulsatilla vulgaris wasn’t easy to spot. It reaches only about 12 inches tall at most, with a spread of about 8 to 12 inches, and when you’re driving at 45 miles per hour, negotiating a hairpin turn, your eyes had better be on the road. But avid wildflower gardeners knew when the flowers would emerge, and they considered digging the plants out of the roadsides or out of national forest land to be a fun little way to spend some time in the mountains.
Despite the aggravation, I love the plant. It seems to grow in reverse. The first to emerge in spring, often when snow is still on the ground, are slender, hairy stems topped by elongated, gray-purple buds. Flowers, which open about the same time that the foliage begins to show, are single, and open either facing the sun or nodding slightly. Once open, the dusky purple petals form a sort of loose, open bell surrounding a brilliant, though small, orange-yellow center. Blooms are framed by a Victorian ruff-shaped corona of slender, needlelike foliage.
When flowers are fully opened, the stems are still only about 4 to 5 inches tall. But they soon stretch taller, seeming to grow along with the foliage, which forms a basal rosette. Leaves are deeply divided and fuzzy, light to medium green, growing to about 4 to 6 inches long. Foliage tends to remain clean throughout the season, long after the flowers depart.
Once the flowers begin to fade, the ornamental show continues with clusters of plumed seedheads, somewhat resembling the seed display of Clematis.
I’ve been able to grow a few pasque flower plants in northern Illinois, but too often I’ve made the mistake of trying to transplant established plants. Deep tap roots don’t make this easy, and mature plants are best left where they’ve become comfortable. Young plants take to new locations readily.
They appreciate full sun and a bit of shade, dry to well-drained soil, and they prefer it to be somewhat alkaline. These are not plants that can handle wet feet, nor do they perform well in very warm regions.
There now are so many gloriously hued cultivars of Pulsatilla species that I’m hoping the wild gardeners have left the roadsides alone. Blooms ranging from purple to pink to the deep, rich red of P. vulgaris ‘Rote Glocke’ are readily available. The colors are irresistible, and tucked in among rock gardens or mixed borders – even in containers – they lend a wild flavor.