How to Grow and Care For Prairie Smoke

Prairie smoke plant with wispy, feather-like achenes on thin stem

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) adds plenty of interest to a garden bed from early spring right through to fall. This perennial wildflower is native to North American prairies. It gets its name from the long, wispy, feather-like achenes (seed heads) that develop during the summer. With their pinkish shades, they create an impression of puffs of smoke. And they remain on the plant for several weeks. The small, pink, bud-like flowers may not be as impressive as the achenes, but they still add a splash of color to the garden starting in the spring. And during the fall, the foliage takes on purplish, reddish, and orange hues and then turns to a burgundy shade come winter. 

Prairie smoke has a moderate growth rate, and clumps of it will slowly spread via rhizomes (underground stems). It can be planted in the spring or fall. 

Common Names Prairie smoke, old man’s whiskers, three-flowered avens, purple avens, lion’s beard, grandfather’s beard
Botanical Name Geum triflorum
Family Rosaceae
Plant Type Herbaceous, perennial
Mature Size 6–18 in. tall, 6–12 in. wide
Sun Exposure Full
Soil Type Loamy, sandy, clay, well-drained
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color Red, pink, purple
Hardiness Zones 3–7 (USDA)
Native Area North America
Prairie smoke wildflower with wispy, feather-like achenes on pink stem closeup

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Prairie smoke wildflower plants and buds on pink stems and feather-like achenes

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Prairie smoke wildflower with wispy, feather-like achenes closeup

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Prairie Smoke Care

Prairie smoke is a versatile, low-maintenance perennial. It can tolerate various soil types, provided that it has good drainage. It doesn't require deadheading or needs much in the way of watering. And it is even fairly tolerant of drought during the summer. In addition, prairie smoke doesn't usually have any serious issues with pests or diseases, and deer in particular tend to leave it alone. On the other hand, it is known to attract butterflies to the garden.

Because it can cope with gravelly, dry conditions, prairie smoke can work well in a rock garden. It's also ideal for a native plant garden. However, because it isn't the largest of plants, make sure not to position it where it will get overshadowed. It isn't tolerant of competition from more vigorous and larger species.

Light

Prairie smoke appreciates a growing site with full sun, meaning at least six hours of direct sunlight on most days. However, some shade from the strong afternoon sun at the height of summer can be beneficial for overall plant health.

Soil

Prairie smoke isn't overly fussy about the soil type in which it grows. In this wildflower's native habitat, it is commonly found in sandy and gravelly soils. It also can grow in loamy and clay soils, as long as there is good drainage. It prefers a fairly neutral soil pH.

Water

Young prairie smoke plants need considerably more moisture than well-established specimens. They like evenly moist but not soggy conditions in the spring, and they should be watered at least weekly during hot summer weather.

Mature prairie smoke plants still like moist conditions while they experience their new spring growth. But they prefer drier conditions once summer arrives. You likely won't have to provide supplemental water unless you have unseasonably hot weather and/or a long stretch without rainfall. It's important that prairie smoke plants are never waterlogged, including over the winter. This can result in root rot.

Temperature and Humidity

This species tends to thrive in mild climates. It can still survive in hot, dry locations, but you might find that the leaves don't look as healthy during the summer months. However, the plant typically will perk up again as the summer heat becomes less intense. Moreover, prairie smoke isn't a fan of high humidity. In humid climates, it's extra important to ensure that the soil is well-drained.

Fertilizer

Prairie smoke can grow just fine in lean soils. But it will grow larger in soils that are enriched with organic matter, so if you have lean soil, it can be helpful to mix some compost in at the time of planting. You can continue to add a light layer of compost each spring. Not only will this feed the plants, but it also will help to improve soil drainage.

Other Geum Varieties

Prairie smoke belongs to the genus Geum, common name avens, which comprises about 50 species. Some of them are native to North America, including:

  • Geum aleppicum (Yellow avens), a perennial wildflower that blooms yellow in the summer
  • Geum canadense (White avens), a groundcover with white flowers in late spring
  • Geum macrophylluym (Large-leaf geum) very similar to yellow avens but with differently shaped basal leaves

Pruning

Prairie Smoke requires little to no pruning although, if desired, the stalks can be cut back after the flowers are done blooming to tidy up its appearance. After a growing season is complete and/or just before the next cycle begins, brown or dead leaves can be removed, but again, this is more for aesthetic purposes than plant health.

Propagating Prairie Smoke

Prairie smoke often self-seeds and spreads underground. So it might do all the propagating work for you. But if you'd like to plant it in another location, you can propagate by division. Besides providing you with new plants, division also can help to renew a mature plant's vigor. Here is how it's done:

  1. In the early spring or fall, dig up the entire clump of a mature plant with a shovel. Gently pull apart its roots, leaving as many intact as possible.
  2. Replant the sections in new suitable locations, at the same depth as the original plant.
  3. Water well and keep the soil evenly moist for the rest of the growing season.

How to Grow Prairie Smoke From Seed

Prairie smoke can be started from seed both outdoors and inside. Plant seeds outdoors in the fall. Or start seeds indoors in the late winter, beginning with a four- to six-week stratification period. Then, plant them in a seed-starting mix, and keep the growing medium lightly moist as seedlings develop. Once seedlings are a few inches high with an established root system, start bringing them outdoors for progressively longer stretches. After that, they will be ready to plant in the garden. 

Potting and Repotting

Prairie smoke is suitable to be grown in containers filled with potting mix. In fact, it is often combined with taller, more eye-catching plants such as phlox, serving as a filler plant. Choose a container large enough to accommodate all the plants without crowding, and make sure it has large drain holes, as prairie smoke does not like wet feet.

Keep in mind that container plants need more frequent watering than garden plants. Check the moisture level daily during the summer.

Overwintering

Prairie smoke is winter hardy to USDA zone 3 and does not need any protection from the cold when grown in the landscape. In a container, however, its roots are exposed to frost, which can kill the plant. The pots should remain outdoors during the winter but they require winterization.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Generally, prairie smoke is a fuss-free plant with very few problems. It is pest-resistant and, while some leaves might get munched on by insects, an infestation is unlikely, as are any diseases.

How to Get Prairie Smoke to Bloom

If the plant isn't flowering, the cause might be insufficient sunlight. It will tolerate a bit of shade, but too much shade can significantly reduce flowering. Move it to a location where it gets the required minimum six hours of sun daily.

Common Problems with Prairie Smoke

The one thing to watch out for is root rot if the plant isn't situated in well-drained soil and gets too moist. This is of special concern in areas prone to long, wet winters. If you notice the issue, the best course correction is to move the plant to an area with better drainage.

FAQ
  • How big does prairie smoke get?

    The base of the plant consists of a mound of green fern-like leaves that grow to about 6-10 inches tall. The plant will also produce flowers on stems reaching heights of 12-18 inches.

  • How long does it take prairie smoke seeds to germinate?

    It can take up to 60 days for the seeds to begin to sprout.

  • How far apart should you plant prairie smoke seeds?

    Eight to 12 inches should be enough distance between seeds so that mature plants don't interfere with each other.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Geum triflorum. Missouri Botanical Garden.