The prairie crocus is North Dakota’s first wildflower on the prairie each year, and a welcome sign of spring. Individual plants may live to be about 50 years old, or more, and mature plants that are 5-6 years old can be over a foot wide with many blooms. Its early appearance means it doesn’t have to compete with other flowers for small insects that help pollinate the plant.
The shape of a crocus is also designed to lure pollinators. Sunlight that reaches the crocus' shiny petals is reflected to the center. On a sunny day, the temperature inside a crocus flower can be as much as 18F warmer than the surrounding air. The wildflower will also track the sun across the sky, maximizing the length of time each day it can stay warmer. This aids the development of seeds and pollen, but is thought to also attract the insects that help pollinate the plant.
Other cool things about the prairie crocus: their seeds are shaped like spears and are covered with backward pointing hairs. The long tail is "differentially hydrophyllic" - meaning its strands soak up water at different rates or to different amounts. When the tail gets wet or dries out, it moves, twisting as the fibers stretch or contract at different rates. The movement pushes the seed head down, through plant litter and loose soil, effectively "planting" the seed. The tiny backward pointing hairs keep them in place, much like a fish hook’s barbs.
Want to find some? Crocus like sandy, well drained soil and don’t like to compete with longer grasses. Find some hills that have been grazed down or have shorter plants the wildflower can grow alongside. Since they love sun (who doesn’t?), ideally look for south facing slopes. Good luck!