I had the enjoyable task of researching and writing several of the annotations on flora and fauna that appear in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. As a young girl, Wilder was outdoorsy, observing everything from crabs to coyotes to the wide variety of plants that grew on the prairies of eastern Dakota Territory while she lived there. In addition to knowing the common names of many of the area’s various grasses, Wilder mentioned numerous prairie flowers, including the “may flowers, thimble flowers, wild sweet Williams, squaw pinks, buffalo beans and wild sunflowers, each blooming in its season” (p. 234) around her family’s homestead near De Smet. Her curiosity about the natural world is one reason that I find a certain omission so curious.
Wilder’s Pioneer Girl never mentions the blossom that is one of the first signs of spring and which, in 1903, became the official state flower of South Dakota. The fuzzy buds of the American pasqueflower (Anemone patens/Pulsatilla patens) typically emerge from the ground in March or April, opening into two-toned purple blossoms with bold yellow centers. Still fairly common, pasqueflowers must have been abundant in Wilder’s day. Why didn’t she mention them?
A little research leads me to some speculation. First, botanist Dave Ode writes in his book Dakota Flora: A Seasonal Sampler (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2006) that pasques prefer “gravelly hills, buttes, and river bluffs” (p. 13). The Ingalls homestead, situated in a fairly low spot next to the Big Slough, might not have had just the right soil, drainage, or exposure for the little plants to establish themselves. Second, the blooms can be delicate and fleeting, lasting as little as a couple of days if a spring blizzard buries them or if hot, dry winds shrivel them (both scenarios are possible during a South Dakota spring). They can also be extremely localized, with numerous plants clustered on a single knob or hillside and none occurring on the next one over.
Finally, pasqueflowers don’t always come up in the spring. In drought years, they may lie beneath the surface for months or until another year, when enough rain falls to make them emerge. On the Ode “homestead” east of Pierre, the north side of a bluff is dotted with some fifty markers pegging the locations of pasqueflower plants. Every spring, we climb the hill to take inventory. This year, after a winter with little snow and a spring with no rain, not a single pasque has popped up. Maybe Wilder never walked past just the right spot at just the right time.
Or, the explanation might be simpler. Pasqueflowers are sometimes called prairie crocus for their resemblance to the domestic crocus, goslinweed for the fuzzy buds that resemble a gosling’s down, and prairie smoke for the plumes that appear once the plant is done blooming. Recently, I also found some sources that list “May Day flower” or “May flower” as an alternate name for the pasque. In Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we speculated that Wilder’s may flower may represent the meadow anemone (p. 235). We can’t know for sure, but perhaps those in and around De Smet during the 1880s knew the pasque as the may flower.
Jeanne Kilen Ode