Early blooming pasqueflower leads Facebook friends away from conflict, into warm recollections

Posted by Kevin Woster on
Pasqueflowers are blooming already near Rapid City's Skyline Drive

Lately when things have gone crazy on my Facebook page it wasn’t always a good thing.
That was about the president, however. This is about the pasques.
Who can share anything but goodwill and good memories when the discussion features pasqueflowers?
Take this recollection from Joan Edwards, a Facebook friend who grew up on a farm near Lodgepole in northwest South Dakota, where pasqueflowers were an important part of her childhood. The pasques were on a farm homesteaded in 1908 by Joan’s grandfather.
“My grandmother always knew where to find them,” Joan wrote after seeing pasqueflower pictures on my Facebook page. “It was like magic to see them popping up out of that sandy soil … this picture brought back fond memories.”
The image of a pasqueflower pushing bravely up through new spring snow or emerging with persistence that seems both irrepressible and delicate from brown thatch is magical, both in what it brings to the landscape and what it means to the colorful bouquet of recollection.
Recently retired state Game, Fish & Parks botanist Dave Ode says locating pasqueflowers, a simple-but-essential adventure that conservationist Aldo Leopold once called “a right as inalienable as free speech,” is an almost-universal experience in South Dakota.
“Far more people are familiar with it than they are with other wildflowers,” Ode says. “In the summer, you go out and there’s 50 different species in flower, so they kind of detract from each other. This time of year there are only three or four that are the first ones up. So for generations in various cultures, in Europe as well here in northern United States, it has been the pasque.”
Indeed, the pasqueflower represents the vanguard of spring bloomers, which prompted South Dakota Poet Laureate Badger Clark, in a 1939 poem, to call it “that bold bit of life at the edge of the snows.”
The pasqueflower gets a head start on spring each fall, when silky flower buds called goslings form just beneath the surface of the ground months before they will bloom.
“So they’re just waiting for moisture and warmth,” Ode says. “They’re all ready from the fall before.”
Readiness is essential in our challenging landscape. So the little American pasqueflower has long been loved in South Dakota. In 1903 the Legislature designated it the state floral emblem, and took the unusual step of adding an appropriate motto: “I lead.”
Indeed, lead it does.
The few other early spring bloomers include the tiny draba plant, an annual mustard variety that Leopold called “the smallest flower that blows.” With good reason, since its blossoms are less than an eighth of an inch wide.
There is also the delicate Easter daisy, which is about the size of the pasqueflower but less likely to be seen.
The pasque itself goes by other names, including the wind flower, prairie crocus, wild crocus and Easter flower — the last name obviously tied to the period of spring when it blooms.
The word pasques is apparently Old French for Easter, while pascha apparently comes from Greek and Latin, and refers to Passover.
Whatever you call it, the lovely little perennial — the individual plants of which might survive and bloom for more than 10 years — is the South Dakota state flower. It is a reliable little bloomer that can be found in sandier, alluvial, sedimentary soils, usually up on hillsides or ridges, across the state.
But soil matters to the pasque, a lot.
“You won’t find a lot of them along the Missouri River,” says Ode, who lives in the breaks east of Pierrre. “They don’t like Pierre shale. They don’t like clay soils. Here in this area they’re near tops of these bluffs on north facing slopes, where there’s enough glacial soil still on top. Anything on the bottom has too much clay.”
The hogsback around the Black Hills is good pasqueflower turf, as is the limestone plateau up in the high country of the hills. The forests and hills of northwestern South Dakota have more sandstone and sedimentary soil suited to pasques, so the Cave Hills and Slim Buttes are good places to hunt for them.
“It can be just spectacular up there in the Cave Hills,” Ode says.
But they need moisture to flourish, and will sometimes wait patiently underground for what they need.
“When we have drought, if it’s too dry in spring they won’t come up and will wait for the first good spring rain,” Ode says. “I’ve seen them flowering in a couple of years in September. They’re adapted to drought. They’re very well adapted to the Northern Plains.”
In that, the flower is much like the people who live here — people who grow attached to the first bloomer of the year.
Walt Schaefer of Schaefer Belgium Farm in Winfred says “we always took them to our teacher from our farm,” which seems like a pretty good way to become teacher’s pet.
But pasques can bring joy into other lives, too, as Paulette Haupt Tobin proved in her growing-up years at Eureka, S.D.
 “I remember picking these in the spring and taking them to the nursing home to give to great grandma Wolff, who came from the Ukraine,” Paulette wrote.
And Eastern pasques are common wildflowers in the Ukraine, so Grandma Wolff clearly had her own supply of springtime memories from the other side of the world, which she brought here.
Donna Fisher of Rapid City brings a Minnesota perspective, as well as a passion for pasques there and now in the Black Hills.
“In Otter Tail County, Minn., we picked them about May Day and called them May Flowers,” she says. “Now we find ours on the road from Rochford to Mystic. When the weather clears again, it's time to start looking in the high country.”
For Custer native Linda Bahnsen Avey, the pasqueflower infatuation dates back to high school.
“We haven't met but I wanted to thank you for this post,” she wrote on Facebook. “It brought back many fond memories. Pasques popped up on the trail from Custer High School to the football field, and I'd stop to marvel during track season. Sure sign of early spring and probably the reason purple has always been my favorite color.”
That’s a good reason to pick a color favorite, even though pasques haven’t been part of Linda’s life for some time.
“Sadly they don't grow here in Northern California,” she wrote.
But she should double check some of the mountainous areas, just to be sure. Pasques are generally plants of the northern hemisphere, and don’t care for the hot stuff. But …
According to Ode, there is at least a similar flower west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains — Anemone occidentalis – which looks a lot like the pasqueflower.
Former state legislator Joyce Hodges, who served in the South Dakota House from 1987 to 1995, didn’t have to move to California to lose the pasques in her life. Progress took them from a once-well-decorated slope in a family pasture near Lake Preston.
“When the lakes and sloughs filled up, the highway department dug that hill out to raise the road after it was flooded for months, so the pasqueflowers disappeared,” Joyce writes. “But that was always a highlight of our spring, to go pick bouquets of them.”
A pasqueflower bouquet typically won’t last long, but will be lovable while it lasts. But even if you think they look good enough to eat, resist the urge. Fresh pasqueflower leaves can be toxic. They can make a human as sick as a dog and a dog even sicker, except that it tastes so bad it’s difficult for man or beast to consume enough to be fatal.
Properly dried, processed and applied, the flowers themselves have been used by indigenous plains tribes to treat joint or muscle pain and made into teas that helped with pain relief and other ailments.
“My guess is Natives would have collected the leaves in early July, for some bitter tea,” Ode says.
They are also used by wildlife species that know what part to eat and what to avoid.
Some residents of the forested edges of Rapid City worry about wildlife impacts on historic pasqueflower stands, city Alderwoman Darla Drew Lerdal says.
“I have heard that our state flower is getting to be a rare find because they are a fave food for turkeys,” she wrote.
Ode says that’s something to watch.
“I wondered about it, where we’ve had expanding turkey populations,” he says. “But there’s a lot of critters that eat them, from jackrabbits to cottontails to deer. I’ve watched mule deer eat them on my hillside here.”
But there’s a bigger worry for Ode and his little patch of Missouri River pasqueflowers, and it has to do with weather and water, and perhaps our changing world.
“I monitor that little population on my hillside, and they’re almost gone,” he said. “I lost a big chunk of them to drought in 2012.”
If the climate is getting warmer and generally drier, what effect might that have on pasquesflowers, which prefer a cooler climate and more dependable rains?
“Climate change could be a factor in how far south in South Dakota these pasqueflowers exist,” he says. “We’ll see, over time…”
Meanwhile, they exist both in fact and in fancy, in memory and deep in the spiritual hearts of people who have known and loved them since childhood:
“The beautiful flower Pasques means love of life, joy and compassion,” says Rapid City insurance executive Donald Herrmann.
“Taking pictures of flowers could be your new pasque-time!” says Sioux Falls musician John Mogen, who has promised to write a pasqueflower song for me.
“They make me think of my wife Heidi, who is delighted by them and who, like pasques, is simultaneously fragile, tough, old, new, surprising, and reliable,” says former state Sen. Alan Aker of Piedmont.
“The buttes southwest of Blunt!” writes Helen Anderson of Blunt. “When our daughter was little the babysitter’s husband brought her pasqueflower every spring. Sometimes even for her birthday, which is April 4th! They are still her favorite flower!”
Which is confirmed by Jody Lynn Anderson Spangenberg, that little daughter now all grown up:
“They still make me smile while tears run down my face! Such sweet memories #itstheSmallthingsthatbecometheBigthings!”
“The farm pastures of my childhood days and beyond, North of Presho had these lovelies,” says Joe Leichtman.
“They remind me of my Mother, she loved them. So do I,” says Carmen Keupp.
And this from Rich Bode, a guy from Chamberlain I knew growing up, who lived and worked in Rapid City for years, and knows the Skyline spots where Mary and I find “our” pasqueflowers each spring.
“Used to live near there, and hiked that trail long before it was designated Skyline nature trail,” Rich writes. “Carried the kids exploring the amphitheater, and then down the old road where there were a couple small caves. Picked flowers lots of times. Thanks for the pleasant reminders.”
My pleasure. Because when it comes to pleasant reminders — of the past, and of the landscapes and the people we love and have loved — you simply cannot beat the pasqueflower.
As the South Dakota Legislature so long ago proclaimed, it leads.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.