ON THE WILDSIDE: Pasque Flower - what’s in a name?

Pasque Flower, with its drooping delicate mauve petals, is a relative of the buttercup.
Pasque Flower, with its drooping delicate mauve petals, is a relative of the buttercup.

On a recent visit to the Black Forest one of the most beautiful of the spring flowers in bloom in the limestone grasslands was what is known in English as Pasque Flower, with drooping delicate mauve petals, a relative of the buttercup.

It is not native to Scotland but in Britain can be found in a few places in southern England. However, on checking its botanical name I discovered that the long-established name Pulsatilla vulgaris is now under threat from researchers who have shown that it may have to be placed under Anemone, in which case its name becomes Anemone pulsatilla.

This is not a rare situation, as many latin names for plants are being changed due to high-tech research studying their DNA. By comparing the molecular structure of the DNA found in living organisms, a precise measure of the differences and similarities between them can be gained.

Appearances can be deceptive! Quite often things that look different to the human eye turn out to be more closely related than they seem at first sight (such as some of our wild orchids), and others which look very similar can turn out to be quite unrelated (as with many succulent plants).

The name Pasque Flower derives from the latin ‘Pascha’ meaning easter or passover - tradition was that the flowers always opened on Good Friday. The plant is poisonous and therefore not palatable to rabbits and sheep, but often requires grazing of the competing plants to survive.

This is the case with many special plants of grasslands and meadows – too much grazing then all that survive are unpalatable weeds like docks and thistles, and with too little grazing the meadows can become overgrown by vigorous scrub and eventually trees, as has happened on many of the English chalk downs.

Sadly, finding real stability of botanical names seems further away than ever, but at least the English names remain the same, whatever the botanists do – Pasque Flower is here to stay.