Plant 129

Pulsatilla vulgaris Miller (Ranunculaceae)


Pasque flower

Pulsatilla vulgaris, with its bell-shaped flowers, violet-purple, silky-haired perianth segments, bright yellow stamens and hairy leaves, is a distinctive species of the English flora in April and May. By the early summer, the flowers have been transformed into heads of feathery fruits. Although this species is frequently planted as a garden plant, it is a rare sight in the wild across Europe.

In England, Pulsatilla vulgaris is a light demanding, grassland species associated with particular geologies. Today, it is found on a narrow belt of chalk from Cambridgeshire to Berkshire, a pocket of oolitic limestone in Gloucestershire and a similar formation extending from Northamptonshire to Lincolnshire. Formerly it was found on Magnesian limestone in northern England, but has not been recorded on Carboniferous limestone. Besides England, Pulsatilla vulgaris is found in calcareous areas of north-west Europe from Sweden in the north to central France in the south, and as far as the Ukraine in the east.

Philip Miller apparently adopted the generic name, meaning 'quiverer', from the sixteenth-century German botanist Otto Brunfels's description of the plant's movements in the wind. The common name refers to the plant frequently flowering around Easter. The genus, of some 30 species, is distributed through temperate Eurasia, although some authors consider Pulsatilla to be part of the genus Anemone.

In England, Pulsatilla vulgaris has declined from 130 sites in 1750 to the present state of 17 sites; 16 sites have been lost over the last 50 years. Despite the loss of sites since the 1960s there has been an overall increase in the total number of individual plants recorded. Declining population numbers since the eighteenth century have been due to the enclosure and ploughing-up of grasslands and urbanisation. Changes in grassland management, especially the reduction in grazing pressure, has dramatic negative effects on Pulsatilla vulgaris. Increased grazing, especially during the winter months, produces a short, herb-rich sward, which has had positive effects on the numbers of Pulsatilla vulgaris individuals at sites where winter grazing has been introduced. Low levels of grazing is one of the major threats to the conservation of Pulsatilla vulgaris, especially in areas where livestock farming is not economically viable. The trend of declining Pulsatilla vulgaris populations associated with reduction in grazing regimes is found across Europe.

Large populations of Pulsatilla vulgaris have more genetic variation than small populations. Furthermore, plants in large populations produce more, heavier seed than in small populations.

Further reading

Hensen I et al. 2005. Genetic structure, population size, and seed production of Pulsatilla vulgaris Mill. (Ranunculaceae) in Central Germany. Flora 200: 3-14.

Walker KJ and Pinches CE 2011. Reduced grazing and the decline of Pulsatilla vulgaris Mill. (Ranunculaceae) in England, UK. Biological Conservation 144: 3098-3105.

Wells TCE and Barling DM 1971. Biological Flora of the British Isles No. 44. Pulsatilla vulgaris Mill. (Anemone pulsatilla L.). Journal of Ecology 59: 275-292.

Stephen Harris