Prairie Smoke is one of the first prairie forbs to bloom, following closely behind the Pasque Flower. It is a native perennial growing on hairy stems from 4 to 16 inches high.
Leaves are mostly all basal, forming a rosette. Each leaf is pinnately divided into 3 to 8 pairs of leaflets plus the terminal leaflet. The leaflets are oblanceolate in shape (broadest in the upper third), with coarsely toothed margins and each pair of leaflets above the middle of the leaf get progressively larger and longer toward the tip of the leaf. These leaves may have even smaller leaflets tucked in between the main leaflets. Leaves are hairy, dark green on top and lighter under. Parts of the rosette may remain green during the winter, even in Minnesota.
The inflorescence consists of several, usually 3, stalked flowers held in an umbel above the leaves on hairy stalks.
The flowers are 5-parted, nodding at first and appear to never open. The outer part of the flowerhead is pink to purplish, with lobes (the sepals) up to 1/2 inch long, which alternate with longer very narrow bracts which recurve and become longer when the plant produces seed. The actual petals are white, but hardly seen as they are covered by the outer lobes. Inside the flower, surrounded by the white petals are numerous pistils with a ring of many stamens around them. At the base of the flower umbel are a pair of leafy bracts that resemble small leaves. These have deeply cut linear lobes. The individual flower stalk can also have an even smaller leafy bract that is usually the same color as the flower stalk - reddish-purple to green. All the exterior parts of the flower are hairy. The reddish buds can appear quite early in April if the weather is warm.
Fruit: Seeds are dry achenes. As the flowers mature, the heads turn upward, the narrow bracts elongate and each achene has attached a style that elongates to 1-1/2 inches, covered with fine whitish hair which helps with dispersion by wind when the achene is mature. The achene is also covered with whitish hair. These heads of billowy styles resemble smoke plumes or long whiskers, hence the common names. Because of almost closed flower throat, it takes a strong insect, such as a bumblebee, to force open the tube for pollination. After seed maturity, the plant then dies down above ground if the soil is very dry, otherwise there remains a basal rosette of leaves. Sixty days of cold stratification may be necessary for seed germination. Read Eloise Butlers notes below.
Habitat: A plant of the moist to dry prairies and wood fringes, growing from the crown of rhizomatous and fibrous roots, and forming dense colonies. There is some difficulty with maintaining a population unless conditions are favorable - witness the number of replanting done by Eloise Butler (notes below the photos). Crowding out by more aggressive plants, too hot and dry, too wet, wrong soil - from personal experience it seems to be a temperamental plant that needs things just right.
Names: The genus, Geum, is an old Latin name for plants in the Avens group - said to have been used by Pliny in his natural history. The species, triflorum, is from the Latin for 'three-flowered', referring to the usual number of flowers in each flower umbel of this plant. There are several varieties of the plant, var. triflorum being the most common in the Plains States. The author name for the plant classification, ‘Pursh’ refers to Frederick Traugott Pursh (1774-1820) German-American botanist who wrote A Systematic Arrangement and Description of the Plants of North America, and was the botanist who catalogued and described the plants brought back by the exploring expedition of Lewis and Clark.
Comparisons: The only other native species that resembles this plant is the Purple, or Water Avens, Geum rivale. But that plant as the name implies is found in wet meadows, marshes and swamps and not where G. triflorum will be found. The other species of Geum have white or yellow flowers.
Above: The emerging plants of a newly planted grouping. The nodding flower heads can appear as early as mid to late April.
Below: Flower heads of late April to early May. Leaves are pinnately divided with leaflet size enlarging toward the tip.
Above: At the base of the flower umbel are a pair of green leaf-like bracts. Note the purplish-green bracts half way up the flower stalks of the two lateral flowers. The reddish lobes enclose the petals and the 5 recurved bracts alternate with the 5 lobes.
Below: The outer lobes almost fully enclose the white petals and inside are the pistils and stamens. Seed heads with the characteristic plume - These threads are the enlarged styles attached to an achene at their base.
Below: The achenes of G. triflorum are covered with fine whitish hair which also covers the elongated style.
Below: A typical umbel of 3 flowers with bracts. Second photo: A developing umbel. Note the hair on the stalk and the bracts. Third photo: A fully developed flower with hair on the stalk and the corolla and the reflexed bracts.
Notes: Eloise Butler's records show that she obtained plants of Prairie Smoke as early as April 26, 1908, April 4, 1909, again on Oct. 5, 1913 and in April 1919, all from the prairie area near Minnehaha Falls. On Aug. 27, 1912, one specimen came from Columbia Heights, MN and six from Merriam Park, St. Paul on Oct. 8, 1914; others in 1920, '21, '22, '23, '24, '25, '27 and '28. Martha Crone planted it in 1935. The species was on Martha Crone's 1951 inventory of Garden plants. It died out at some point as it was replanted by Cary George in 1998 and by Susan Wilkins in 2006.
Prairie Smoke is native to most counties of Minnesota except those in the NE quadrant and counties in the tilled agricultural belt of south central Minnesota south of Hennepin and Wright. In North America the species is found from the Great Lake States westward to Montana and Wyoming and then down the chain of mountains as far south as northern New Mexico. It is found in Canada from Ontario westward.
There are six species of Geum native to Minnesota. Most are quite widespread: G. aleppicum, Yellow Avens; G. canadense, White Avens; G. laciniatum, Rough Avens; G. macrophyllum, Large-leaf Avens; G. rivale, Water Avens; and G. triflorum, Prairie Smoke.
Eloise Butler wrote: "Nearly contemporaneous with the pasque flower, and likewise on the prairie, grows the Avens, or three-flowered Geum (Prairie Smoke). It bears a tuft of fern-like, interrupted pinnate leaves, each leaf consisting of divided leaflets arranged along the stalk like the parts of a feather, interspersed with still smaller leaflets. The plant has a single flower stalk with three branches at the top, each terminated by a rosy, pensile bell, looking like a flower bud, decorated with slender, recurved bracts. One would wait in vain, however, for these débutantes to appear otherwise. “Buds” they will seem to be throughout their season. Opening the five closed petals you will find attached to them five creamy petals and many stamens. In the center of the flower are innumerable pistils, which finally form a lovely claret-colored ball of gossamer plumes, each serving to waft through the air the little seed-like fruit." Published May 28, 1911, Sunday Minneapolis Tribune.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"