Prairie Smoke – A Complete Guide To Geum triflorum


One of the best low-growing native perennials for providing beauty and a border is Prairie Smoke. This short pink-blooming perennial looks great from mid-Spring to Summer and attracts bumblebees. It is clump forming by nature, which means it can be divided every several years. It’s compact size and ability to fill itself in makes it a great choice for a natural border near walkways.

In this article:

What is Prairie Smoke

Prairie Smoke is a perennial wildflower native to North America.  Scientifically known as Geum triflorum, it grows up to 8” tall in full sun and well-drained soil.  Blooming pink flowers in Spring that hang upside down, it attracts bumblebees who are attracted to the nectar. It expands by seed and through clump-forming rhizomes. [1][2][3][4]

After the blooming period ends the flowerheads become erect, and seeds form in dense clusters.  Each seed will have a long feather-like tail, and it is these dense clusters that give Prairie Smoke it’s common name.

The long feathers of Prairie Smoke. Credit USFWS Mountain-Prairie, CC 2.0

Prairie Smoke is a beautiful and compact perennial that can be a great addition to any garden.  It’s small size make it truly ‘residential friendly’ in that it won’t be overbearing or flop.[5]

The native range of Prairie Smoke is huge and spans vastly different ecosystems. From thin sandy soils to prairies, it can grow. However, there is evidence that local ecotypes have adapted to these regions.[6] So, while it is generally safe to plant in medium to dry soil conditions, if you have the ability to source your seed/plants from local ecotypes, you should do so.

Native Range of Prairie Smoke

The primary native range of Prairie Smoke is Western United states from Washington to California, over to Illinois, and the Canadian Provinces of British Columbia to Ontario, even stretching into the Yukon. [1][6]

Prairie Smoke Reference Table

Scientific NameGeum triflorum
Common Name(s)Prairie Smoke, lion’s beard, Old Man’s Beard, Old Man’s Whiskers, Purple Smoke, Three-Flowered Avens, Three-sisters, Torchflower.
Native Range, USDA ZoneWestern and Central North America, USDA hardiness zones 3-7
Bloom TimeSpring to Summer
Bloom Duration, Color4-8 weeks, Purple to Red/pink
Height6″-18″ (7.5-22 cm)
Spacing / Spread12″ (15 cm)
Light RequirementsFull sun
Soil TypesSandy to clay loam, well-drained
MoistureDry to medium-moisture
Fauna Associations / Larval HostsBees
Sources [1][2][3][4][5]

What are the Benefits of Prairie Smoke

Beauty

The flower heads of Prairie Smoke look great for up to two months.[2]  The combination of red sepals and light red petals give it a pink hue that goes well with anything.

Compact size

Prairie Smoke is generally 6-8” tall (9-12 cm), making it one of the smaller flowering native plants that can be considered showy.  But this small stature make it an option for growing right next to a sidewalk, driveway, or to serve as a quasi-natural divider between species.

Drought Tolerant

Prairie Smoke is mostly native to the drier and sandier Western United States.  This drought tolerance means it is low maintenance too.

Identification and Characteristics of Prairie Smoke

Stalk

Erect flowering stalks emerge from the center of the rosette and are typically 8” tall, but can reach as tall as 18″ (22 cm).  The stalk is reddish purple in color and covered with fine hairs. [2][3]

Leaf

Like some other members of the Geum genus, Prairie Smoke will form a rosette of basal leaves.  Individual leaves are roughly 3-5” long by 1-1.5” wide. And individual leaf has an odd-pinnate, pinnatifid, or lyrate structure with 6-18 lateral leaflets & a single terminal leaflet.[4][5]

A leaflet is oblanceolate in shape with dentate & ciliate margins.  The upper surface is medium green with small hairs, while the lower surface is light green also has hairs.[2]

Some of the lower basal leaves will persist all Winter.  However, similar to Foxglove Beardtongue, the leaves will often change to a red or purple color.  But, if you come across some barren soil and notice leaves that resemble Prairie Smoke….well you probably found some.

Flower

The flowering stalks terminate into an umbel of typically three perfect flowers that droop upside down.  Sometimes up to 7 flowers can occur in an umbel, though it is rare.[3] Each umbel will have two leafy bracts at it’s base.  The bracts are roughly linear in shape and a reddish color. 

And individual flower is ½”-1” long and has approximately the same diameter.  A flower will have about five red to purple-red sepals and five white to pale-red petals giving it an overall pinkish color.  Additionally, 5 linear floral bracts will extend outward from each flower, these bracts being the same color as the sepals. [4]

Numerous styles will protrude out the flowerhead, although they are quite small during the active blooming period.

Flowers will bloom in late Spring for 4-8 weeks.  After flowering, the nodding flowerheads turn right side up and form very dense achenes of seed, with each seed being attached to one of the aforementioned styles.  These styles elongate as seed ripens, and grow fine hairs.[4][5]  This gives it a ‘smokey’ appearance.

How to save seed from Prairie Smoke

To save seed from Prairie Smoke, wait until the hairs begin to turn white. Then, gather them from the seed head as soon as they begin to loosen, as the wind will eventually blow them away. A mesh bag with drawstring may help with seed collection, as you could ‘bag’ the seed head prior to it being dispersed. One researcher gathered ~140 seeds from a single mature plant. [7]

It has been noted that it could be beneficial to cut styles right before harvesting to prevent entanglement. Also noted that rainstorms can cause almost total dispersal of the seed, so one must pay close attention.[8]

Root

The root system of Prairie Smoke consists of fibrous roots and rhizomes.  Rhizomes are one of the primary ways this plant spreads. [7]

Grow and Care for Prairie Smoke

Sunlight Requirements

For sunlight, Prairie Smoke will grow best in full sun, which is at least six hours per day.  It can grow in partial shade, which is 4-6 hours per day but it will be smaller and not flower much.[2][3]

Soil Requirements

When it comes to soil texture, Prairie Smoke prefers sandy or gravelly soil that is somewhat barren.  And the soil must be well drained.  Shallow soils are also fine, as Prairie Smoke does not tolerate competition from taller plants well.[6] Although it has been found to grow in clay in northern Nevada,

Moisture Requirements

For moisture, Prairie Smoke will prefer medium-moist to dry conditions and well-draining soil. Although there is ample evidence that it is quite adaptable and can tolerate periods of high moisture in early Spring, followed by drought in late Summer months. [9]

So, what does this mean? Well, as long as your soil can drain and has full sun, you can probably grow it. But if you live in a more extreme environment (dry thin soils or deep prairie) then you should make an effort to get your plants/seed sourced from local ecotypes.[6]

Maintenance

If grown in it’s preferred growing conditions, Prairie Smoke will spread via underground rhizomes.  If the clump gets too large, you can divide it in the Spring.

Fertilizer

Prairie Smoke will not require supplemental fertilizer.

How to Grow Prairie Smoke from Seed

Prairie Smoke isn’t too difficult to grow from seed.  It doesn’t require cold stratification to germinate, but research found moderate increases in germination rates.[10]  The tiny seeds should be surface sown, as sunlight will help break dormancy. To achieve the stratification requirements, and due to the small size of the seed it is best to winter sow Prairie Smoke.

But, the seeds must be on the surface of the soil and in constant moisture for several weeks to germinate, regardless if they are stratified or not. [8] And because of this, you should really consider Winter Sowing the seed, as the soil in early Spring will hold moisture much better than under the hot mid-summer sun.

Also – seed viability may vary considerably year to year. As researchers found germination rates varied from 14% to 80% (unstratified seed) depending on the year harvested.[10]

If you are unfamiliar with Winter Sowing, I strongly suggest you check out our step-by-step guide.

But for planting, simply fill a suitable container with moist potting soil, and gently scatter/press the seed in.  Then place the container in a location that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. 

Prairie Smoke Seedlings

Establishing Prairie Smoke

Prairie Smoke seedlings are quite tiny, and should be separated or thinned once true leaves develop. 

But keep seedlings well watered the first year so they can survive any droughts.  You can expect to get blooms the second year after germination/transplanting.  If you wait to transplant until Autumn, you may not get any blooms until year three.

This is a first year Prairie Smoke plant germinated in Spring, and transplanted in September. This photo was taken in October in zone 6. It bloomed the following Spring.

Propagating Prairie Smoke by division

Prairie Smoke can be divided in Spring every 3rd to 5th year. Dig up the clump in early Spring, just as plants are emerging. Then, use a hose to soften and separate root clumps. Each root clump can be immediately replanted in a new location to make a new plant.

It is important to do this in very early Spring for several reasons. First, you do not want to separate/transplant plants when they are near blooming or making seed, which Prairie Smoke does in Spring. Second, the ground soil and air temperatures are generally moist during Spring, reducing water demand. Third, the reduced water demands allows the plant to reattach roots to soil, reducing transplant shock.

This is Prairie Smoke in early Spring. Once flowering stalks show up, it may be too late to divide.

Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Prairie Smoke

Pollinators

Bumblebees are the primary pollinators of Prairie Smoke.  They are strong enough to pry open the flowers to reach the nectar.[11][12]

Deer and Rabbits

Deer and rabbits tend to leave Prairie Smoke alone.  In fact I’ve never seen any damage on my plants, and I have quite a few now lining sidewalks around my home. However, out west with less vegetation available, mule deer have been reported to forage in Fall. [13]

Other mammals

Prairie Smoke is not preferred forage source by mammals. It is however fed on by pronghorn and elk, and occasionally by cattle. [2]

Disease

Prairie Smoke is generally disease free.

Where you can buy Prairie Smoke

Prairie Smoke is not typically sold in nurseries, as it isn’t a typical ‘garden friendly’ plant. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map.

Where to buy seeds

We have ordered a variety of native flower seeds from Everwilde Farms, which you can order right from Amazon through our link on our RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS PAGE. (We may earn a small commission when you purchase through our links, at no cost to you. This helps support our website.)

Uses of Prairie Smoke

Garden Uses

Considering the natural habitat of Prairie Smoke is empty, rough, barren soil as it dislikes competition, it is really a great choice for formal mulched flower beds. It’s compact size make it an excellent choice as a filler plant or lining walkways.

A second year Prairie Smoke plant blooming along a driveway

It can also serve as a small border between species, assuming it doesn’t get overcrowded.  And since it can spread via rhizomes, you can always get more for free!

Furthermore, the shallow root system make Prairie Smoke a possible choice for growing in a pot or container. However, you should overwinter pots in unheated garages, sheds, or take measures to ensure the pot doesn’t freeze solid for prolonged periods.

Companion Plants

For companion plants, Prairie Smoke will grow well with other dry to medium-moisture loving plants in full sun.  Some good choices would be the following;

Medicinal Uses

The leaves and stems of Prairie Smoke have been tested and found to have antimicrobial properties. [14]

Native American Uses

There are 35 documented Native American uses of Prairie Smoke by 5 different Tribes.[15][16] Some of the uses include the following:

  • An infusion of the plant was taken as cough medicine
  • Roots and grease were used as salve to open sores, rashes, and other skin issues.
  • Infusion of roots was used to treat swollen eyes
  • Roots could be used as a ‘love medicine’ for women who wanted to win back a man
  • Infusion of roots could be used to treat colds, fevers or lack of appetite

Final Thoughts

Prairie Smoke is one of the more residential friendly plants you can grow in your yard. It’s small size and long bloom time allow it to look good for a long period in Spring.

Find more native plants here

References:

[1] – “Geum triflorum” USDA NRCS. Accessed 15JUN2023

[2] – “Geum triflorum” Fire Effects Information System (FEIS), US Forest Service. Accessed 15JUN2023.

[3] – Hickman, James C., ed. The Jepson manual: higher plants of California. Univ of California Press, 1993.

[4] – Hitchcock, Charles Leo, et al. “Vascular plants of the Pacific Northwest. Part 3: Saxifragaceae to Ericaceae.” Vascular plants of the Pacific Northwest. Part 3: Saxifragaceae to Ericaceae. (1961).

[5] – Gleason, Henry Allan, and Arthur Cronquist. Manual of vascular plants of northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. No. 581.973 G54. Princeton, NJ: van Nostrand, 1963.

[6]- Yoko, Zebadiah G., et al. “The importance of quantitative trait differentiation in restoration: landscape heterogeneity and functional traits inform seed transfer guidelines.” AoB Plants 12.2 (2020): plaa009.

[7] – Stevens, O. A. “Weights of seeds and numbers per plant.” Weeds 5.1 (1957): 46-55.

[8]- Zimmerman, James H. “Propagation of spring prairie plants.” Proceedings of the 2nd Midwest Prairie Conference, Parkside, WI, USA. 1972. Accessed 28JUN2023. Archived version.

[9] – Lloyd, Dennis, et al. “A guide to site identification and interpretation for the Kamloops Forest Region.” Land Management Handbook-Ministry of Forests, British Columbia 23 (1990).

[10] – Greene, H. C., and John T. Curtis. “Germination studies of Wisconsin prairie plants.” American Midland Naturalist (1950): 186-194.

[11] – Hamilton, J. A., and C. G. Eckert. “Population genetic consequences of geographic disjunction: a prairie plant isolated on Great Lakes alvars.” Molecular Ecology 16.8 (2007): 1649-1660.

[12] – Robson, Diana B. “Impact of Grazing History on Pollinator Communities in Fescue Prairie.” Blue Jay 77.1 (2019): 10-15.

[13] – Kamps, George Frank. Whitetail and mule deer relationships in the Snowy Mountains of central Montana. Diss. Montana State University-Bozeman, College of Letters & Science, 1969.

[14] – Borchardt, Joy R., et al. “Antimicrobial activity of native and naturalized plants of Minnesota and Wisconsin.” Journal of medicinal plants research 2.5 (2008): 98-110.

[15] – “Geum triflorum” North American Ethnobotany Database. Accessed 02JUL2023.

[16] – Moerman, Daniel E, Native American medicinal plants : an ethnobotanical dictionary, Portland, Or. : Timber Press, 2009, pp.801

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over 10 years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! You may have seen some of my videos I create on our YouTube channel, GrowitBuildit (more than 10 million views!). You can find my channel here: https://youtube.com/@growitbuildit Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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