The prairie crocus, or Pulsatilla nuttalliana, is often considered the first flower of the spring (though this year, it has been well and truly beat out by the catkins of pussy willows and balsam poplar). It is usually pale mauve or, very rarely, white. When you find one, sit still, dwell with it (please do not pick!), look to see who visits its bright yellow pollen filled centre!
Despite its name, the prairie crocus is not the same species as the European crocus, which is a member of the iris family. Our native crocus is a member of the buttercup or crowfoot family. The Cree name for the flower, mostos nitisiy, translates as “bison belly button”. I have never seen a bison’s belly button (I don’t want to get that close), but the prairie crocus helps me imagine it! Pulsatilla nuttalliana, is covered with hairs, which provide some natural insulation from the cold and retains the sun’s daytime warmth through the evening. As well, its satellite shaped flowers are models for solar ovens, able to magnify the sun’s rays and turn them to heat. Besides the flower’s shape and the plant’s furry coat, Pulsatilla nuttalliana also has deep tap roots that store its energy during the long cold prairie winters.
Photo by Nikki Bergeron
We launched our crocus search on the cool, windy weekend of April 8-10, visiting three known hotspots: Cranberry Flats, Crocus Prairie, and the Saskatoon Natural Grasslands. NB: a crocus flower in full mauve colour was photographed at the NorthEast Swale on April 7. We found plenty of crocuses at the ecologically sensitive Cranberry Flats Conservation Area, but they were nubbins, waiting for a warmer sunnier day before showing off their mauve petals. Crocus Prairie, true to its name, had even more of the nubbins – this prairie will soon be almost completely mauve! At Saskatoon Natural Grasslands, the part we visited, we found no sign of crocuses. More seeking is necessary!
Being one of the earliest flowers, and the earliest that specializes in insect pollinators, means that the crocus has the devoted attention of all the early insects. The seed head is just as glorious as the flower, covering the plant with a globe of parachute seeds. A wonder to explore is to gather a few seeds, save them in the freezer until January, and then put them just slightly into the soil in an indoor pot, pointy end down. Spray them with a little water, and see what magic happens.
Photo by Nikki Bergeron
Searching for prairie crocus is such a treat for kids itching to get outdoors after a long winter. We had some curious children join us on our searches; parents came well prepared with layers of warm clothes and a selection of nutritious snacks (chocolate is nutritious!). The children grumbled a wee bit about the wind, but they quickly forgot as they entered the shelter of the trees. These parents modeled their own fascination with the world, stopping to dwell and observe the land and elicit wonder from the younger adventurers among us. It helps in such precarious places as natural grasslands to be open to modifying goals. While seeking crocuses, there is so much to find, see, smell, hear, touch, do, … and even taste (but do be careful with this latter activity). We examined signs of insect life (yes! Already there are beetles that probably would like to visit a crocus), the colourful lichens on rocks and trees and ground, the plants as they greened up and began to set flowers.
Support your own and your children’s learning by looking for patterns. Enjoy wondering with your children about the hidden spring secrets of the grasslands. The greatest discoveries are found in open wandering and asking along the way.
– Janet McVittie & Chad Hammond
Photo by Janet McVittie
Where to look for crocuses in and
- Crocus Prairie
- Cranberry Flats
- Saskatoon Natural Grasslands
- Northeast Swale
- Beaver Creek along the Blue Trail
Photo by Janet McVittie
Crocuses can take up to 5 years to bloom from seed. When you see a large clump of crocus blooms it could be 30 years old!
Photo by Chad Hammond
How to get there
Cranberry Flats Conservation Area: drive south on Lorne Avenue (Hwy 219) to Grasswood Road, and turn West. At the first intersection, Stratchcona Rd (Rd 3055), turn south, and continue to the large sign that marks the Conservation Area. Pay attention: no after hours visits, and no off-leash dogs! The boardwalk is wheel chair accessible, and a crusher dust trail leads to the boardwalk.
Crocus Prairie: drive north on Central Ave from Attridge Dr. The parking lot is on the west side of Central just past the Regional Psychiatric Centre. Do not pick the flowers, and all dogs must be on leash.
I recommend leaving your vehicle at the Crocus Prairie parking lot and walking across Central Avenue to the Saskatoon Natural Grasslands.
Cranberry Flats Conservation Area: Crusher dust trails to a wooden walkway, making this part of the park wheelchair accessible. There are informal paths and river views. Outhouse.
Crocus Prairie: Crusher dust trails from parking lot to top of river bank, and along to the forest that abuts the off-leash dog park. No toilets. From the parking lot, the Saskatoon Natural Grasslands mowed trails are accessible across Central Ave.
Saskatoon Natural Grasslands: no toilets. Mowed trails.
For more information: Check out the Saskatoon Nature Society’s A Guide to Nature Viewing Sites In and Around Saskatoon, available on loan from the Saskatoon Public Library and for purchase at Turning the Tide and McNally Robinson bookstores and directly from the Saskatoon Nature Society, purchase the book here.