Friday, May 22, 2009


“Have you seen any crocus yet?” we ask each other in March when it’s really still winter on the high east-slope prairie. Even tough guys ask, “Seen any crocus?” They don’t really mean garden-type crocus but rather a wild member of the buttercup family, except that it’s pale lavendar, vaguely shaped like a crocus and equipped for early spring with an ability to melt back the snow around it. Other names include the official “anemone patens L.” or Prairie Anemone, Windflower, Blue Tulip, American Pulsatilla and A. Indoviciana, but no one asks “seen any American Pulsatilla yet?”

In fact, it’s the state flower of South Dakota -- not Montana -- but the trick is that on the east slope of the Rockies it’s early March in June, which is about the time the tourists arrive in the West, so outsiders never see them in flatter Dakota. Maybe in the Black Hills. Variations bloom from Alaska to Washington as well as Illinois and Texas. It’s the state flower of Manitoba where they are even more grateful to see Spring than we are in Montana.

Patens means spreading, so it lives up to that part of its fancier name. Actually, like many of our plants older than the plate tectonic drifting-apart that separated North America from Eurasia, it blooms there, too. It also grows in limestone pastures in central and northern Europe and parts of Russia, and locally in southern England from where the Pasque / Parsk / Pask family takes its name. Pasque refers to Easter (Passover) as the flower blooms around that time of year. The flower is not flashy and around here they are paler, less red than in other places.

It never occurred to me to try to grow crocus in my yard, though I sometimes have fleeting ideas about growing local indigenous plants, until Prairie Moon Nursery send me an email newsletter that offered the seeds ($4 a packet). They have a website and I got my sweetgrass start from them. The website also lists plants and seeds, plus the directions for collecting the seeds plus many photos of “crocus” and comments on them from many parts of the world. Nineteen individuals will trade plants or seeds. Google lists 134,000 entries for Pasqueflower: shocking to someone who cherishes this small early flower as something unique, local and not quite secret but not exactly shared with strangers or people one doesn’t like much. It takes a certain kind of person to care whether you’ve seen any crocus yet.

As I look at the photos and comments, I begin to suspect that they aren’t all talking about our small pale flower, no petals/only sepals, fuzzy as a kitten’s ear. Some of the variations from other places are a foot tall, dark, much more aggressive-looking.

You want to keep your sheep away from even our innocent versions. “Pasque flower is highly toxic, and produces cardiogenic toxins and oxytoxins which slow the heart in humans. Excess use can lead to diarrhea, vomiting and convulsions, hypotension and coma.” But even things that have potential to be dangerous can be very helpful in the proper situation. Suppose one WANTS to slow the heart? What if one WANTS diarrhea and vomiting to rid the body of something even more toxic? “It has been used as a medicine by Native Americans for centuries. Blackfeet Indians used Pasque Flower to induce abortions and childbirth.” But if one wants to preserve and protect the pending infant, Pulsatilla should not be taken during pregnancy nor during lactation.

“Extracts of Pulsatilla have been used in an effort to treat reproductive problems such as premenstrual syndrome and epididymitis.” (The epididymis, according to my medical dictionary, is “an elongated, cordlike, structure along the posterior border of the testis, whose elongated coiled duct provides for storage, transit and maturation of spermatazoa and is continuous with the ductus deferens.” In pictures it looks like a ball of string after a cat gets through playing with it.) “Additional applications of plant extracts include uses as a sedative and for treating coughs. It is used as an initial ingredient in homeopathic preparations, which don't have toxic effects of other remedies because the ingredients are diluted with water until no molecules of the initial substance can be found in a typical quantity.”

One could invent a a story about a mountain man who, due to the rampant behavior typical of mountain men, caught himself a case of “epididymitis” without knowing what it was, and his worried indigenous consort, being sophisticated about the management of unwanted births -- which is a good skill for those who hang around with mountain men -- finally cures him with extract of pasque flower around Easter on the east slopes of the Rockies, though she knows nothing about Easter. Her world includes no chicks, boiled eggs or bunnies though there are plenty of tortured men, not necessarily linked with the revival of life in the spring. One could have a lot of fun with ironic play among levels of interpretation, good for baiting college sophomores who have just discovered cultural relativity and upwelling symbolism drawn from the land. (I’m joking, but this is one of my serious preoccupations.)

So a pasque flower is an excellent example of a local aesthetic phenomenon linked with a season of ceremonial importance that people think of as their own, but is, in fact, shared around the planet from eons earlier than continents. If I were still creating liturgical garments, I might embroider or bead pasque flowers onto a preaching shawl and wear it on the Sundays close to Easter.

The Blackfeet word for crocus is kippiaapi. This is close to kipitaaakii, which means “old woman.” When one prays in the spring while opening the Thunder Pipe Bundle, one invokes Kipitaaakii, rather as one might speak of “Mother Nature.” Around here now you’d have to go up into the mountains to see a crocus, but they’ll be there at the edge of the snow, just as they were when the glaciers melted back ten thousand years ago and the old Blackfeet women gathered them for medicine. They didn’t put them in vases to admire, just laid them out in the sun to dry and suffered a little afterwards since they wore no gloves. Just the same, they saw the beauty: their hearts slowed.

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