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What is a Prairie Smoke?

Anna Harrison
Anna Harrison

A Prairie smoke, or Geum triflorum, is a wildflower that is native to the United States and Canada. It is fairly rare, and is considered a threatened plant in New York and Michigan. Prairie smoke is very ornamental, with hairy, pinnate leaves and dusky pink flowers that bloom in groups of three. Its name comes from its silvery seed pods produced after flowering in late spring and summer. These ornamental plants are also known as Purple Avens and Old Man’s Beard.

These hardy, easy-to-grow perennial plants can be found growing wild in fields, dry woodlands, and prairies where they can be about 18 inches (46 cm) tall. Their low height makes them a good choice for the front of the border as well as alpine and rock gardens. They prefer rich, well drained soil and require plenty of sunlight to produce flowers. Prairie smoke plants are tough and will survive both cold winters and hot summers. Though they are drought tolerant, they cannot stand having wet roots and will often die if left in standing water.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Similar to the iris and fern, Prairie smoke grows from a rhizome. It forms an underground stem which can be difficult to dig up. Like other wildflowers, they can be difficult to transplant; it is important to get the entire rhizome, as well as the soil around it, to prevent transplant shock. If the rhizomes are broken, the plant may not survive.

When grown as garden plants, it is best to start Prairie smoke plants from seed. The seeds should be stratified for a few weeks, then given steady bottom warmth. This can be done with either a heating cable or by placing the planters or trays above a heat register. The seeds should germinate in about a week and can be planted outdoors in late spring. Plants grown from seed will usually not produce flowers until the second year of growth.

Prairie smoke plants are very tender when they are small and often do not survive their first year of life. The ones that do survive are usually strong and long lived. Once they have become established, they will often spread by self seeding and by their underground rhizomes. They may form into large colonies, thus making attractive ground cover.

In addition to the ornamental flowers and seed heads, the leaves of these plants turn a bright crimson in autumn. These qualities give Prairie smoke nearly year round interest. The leaves often stay on the plants well into winter, adding much needed color at this time of year.

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