By Julie Harris, Master Gardener
I have been enchanted by the ethereal beauty of Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) since I began my effort to introduce more natives into my garden a few years ago. It is named for its wispy seed heads – when setting seed, a group of these plants creates a magnificent gauzy effect that looks like smoke hovering close to the ground. Also called “Old Man’s Whiskers” and “Purple, Long-Plumed or Three-Flowered Avens,” Prairie Smoke is part of the Rose family. A native perennial, Prairie Smoke is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring (April – May).
Prairie Smoke is a small plant (6 – 16 inches) and is best appreciated at the front of the garden. It consists of clusters of 3 or more flowers on each of its long (12 – 18 inch,) hairy stems. The flowers are ¾ – 1 inch long and are a reddish-pink or purple. The flowers face down when young but turn up and open after pollination. They have an almost closed flower throat, requiring strong insects, such as bumblebees, to force their way in to pollinate the flowers. The fertilized flowers are followed by 2 – 3 inch long silvery-pink fluffy fruits (described by one writer as something like the hair of a troll doll) that provide the floating smoke appearance.
The foliage forms a mound 6 – 10 inches tall. Leaves are almost ferny in appearance and are semi-evergreen, turning to red and orange hues from late fall through the winter. The leaves’ appearance deteriorates during the heat of summer but perks back up in the fall. Plant Prairie Smoke among flowering bulbs or other native plants that do well in dry summer conditions.
Prairie Smoke is found throughout the central and northern U.S. and southern Canada and is hardy in zones 3 – 7. It grows in prairie and woodland sites but can be crowded out of these habitats by more aggressive natives. Prairie Smoke is tolerant of many soil types but does not like to be wet. It prefers a sunny location, spreads by rhizomes and can be divided in the spring or fall.
Native Americans used the plant for medicinal purposes. The roots and foliage could be steeped in a tea for toothaches, sore throats, sore eyes and stomach ailments. According to lore, some tribes used the roots as a love potion – but this is a research-based article, so we won’t go there. Prairie Smoke can also be used in dried flower arrangements.
Prairie Smoke is a native perennial that supports the environment and will be a charming addition to your garden.
Minnesota Wildflowers: A Project for Environmental Justice, Geum Triflorum – Prairie Smoke, https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info/flower/prairie-smoke
Susan Mahr, Prairie Smoke – Geum Triflorum, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Extension, 2021. https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/prairie-smoke-geum-triflorum/
The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc., Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden; Prairie Smoke; https://www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org/pages/plants/prairiesmoke.html
Holly Hutton, Clinical Herbalist, More Than Medicinal: Herbal Love Medicine, Celebrating Gaira’s Herbal Gifts, https://herbalgoddessmedicinals.wordpress.com/tag/prairie-smoke/