Herb to Know: Pasqueflower

| April/May 1998

  • 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”.

Medicinal Uses For Pasqueflower

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.”

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