Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.
• Pulsatilla vulgaris
• (Pul-suh-TILL-uh vul-GAH-riss)
• Family Ranunculaceae
• Perennial herb
Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), a handsome plant with ferny leaves and large, silky flowers, is a common harbinger of spring in gardens in Zones 4 to 7. “Pasque” refers to Easter or Passover, the season when it blooms, and the greenish juice of the sepals was once used to color Easter eggs.
The genus Pulsatilla, a member of the buttercup family, comprises 30 species of perennial herbs native to Eurasia and North America. P. vulgaris (sometimes sold under the former name Anemone pulsatilla) is native from England and France north to Sweden and east to Ukraine. It forms a foot-tall mound arising from a rather woody rootstock. The finely cut basal leaves are at first covered with silky hairs that insulate the plant from the wind, but they become smooth later on. In early spring, silvery flower buds on separate, downy stalks open into 11/2-inch upward-facing or nodding lavender flowers before the leaves have fully emerged. What look like six pointed petals are technically sepals. Within them is a mass of brilliant yellow stamens surrounded by a ring of staminodes, sterile stamens that secrete nectar. The many narrow styles elongate after the flower fades, forming a silky plume that is nearly as decorative as the flower.
White, purple, and red cultivars are available. North American relatives include western pasqueflower (P. occidentalis) with creamy, cup-shaped flowers and lion’s-beard (P. patens), South Dakota’s state flower, with lavender, purple, or blue cup-shaped flowers. Several other European species are prized by rock gardeners.
The generic name Pulsatilla comes from the Latin pulsatus, “struck, beaten”, and illa, a diminutive ending; the name may be an allusion to the way the feathery seed heads are beaten by the wind, or perhaps the flowers reminded someone of small bells. Vulgaris is Latin for “common”.
The seventeenth-century British herbalist John Parkinson mentions several species of Pulsatilla as being useful in treating tertian ague (probably malaria) and “obstructions”. Maud Grieve, writing in 1931, recommends a tincture of pulsatilla (the whole herb of P. vulgaris or P. pratensis) for relieving headaches and neuralgia, as well as “nerve exhaustion” in women, adding, “It is specially recommended for fair, blue-eyed women.”
P. patens, used medicinally by Native Americans, was included in the U.S. Pharmacopeia as a diuretic, expectorant, and uterine stimulant from 1882 to 1905. The Chinese have used P. chinensis for 2,000 years and consider it to be anti-inflammatory, astringent, and antibacterial. Homeopaths have used extremely dilute solutions of various species to treat eye and skin diseases, delayed menstruation, measles, nettle rash, toothache, earache, indigestion, and respiratory problems.
Despite their long history of medicinal use, all species of Pulsatilla are quite toxic. Contact with the plant sap can blister the skin, chewing the fresh tops can inflame and blister the mouth and throat, while ingestion can provoke bloody vomiting and diarrhea, even convulsions.
In the wild, pasqueflower grows in dry, often chalky soils. Its primary requirement is excellent drainage. Give it full sun in the North, full sun to part shade in the South. Large plants are reputed to be difficult to transplant because of their woody rootstock.
Wear gloves when handling plants to avoid blistering.
Pasqueflower may be propagated by seeds or root cuttings taken in winter. For best germination, plant seeds as soon as they ripen. To speed germination of dried seeds, prechill them in a plastic bag with a moist paper towel or a little vermiculite for three weeks before sowing.
Slugs, snails, and shiny black-blue oil beetles all may attack the foliage. Deal with the slugs and beetles by cutting them in two with pruning shears. Hand-pick the snails and drop in water to which you’ve added a drop of liquid detergent. Oil beetles can raise blisters on your skin, so wear gloves if you decide to hand-pick them.
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