Geum (Avens/Prairie Smoke)
One of the first perennials to emerge in the spring, Geum (JEE-um), commonly known as avens, is a distinctly charming harbinger of spring in natural areas and sunny landscapes. Belonging to the rose family, Rosaceae, Geum is a close relative of strawberries, with around fifty species distributed worldwide, including the Minnesota native Geum triflorum, also known as prairie smoke.
Native across North America, prairie smoke is quick to rise in the spring, forming low basal rosettes of pinnately divided, fern-like, fuzzy (tomentose) green leaves up to eight inches long that later take on rich red or purple fall color. Spreading gently though rhizomes, prairie smoke form feathery mounds 12-18” tall and wide and should be divided at least every three or four years in late spring or fall to maintain vigorous growth. What truly sets prairie smoke apart from the rest, however, is their spring blooms and iconic hazy fruiting plumes.
Blooming in the spring through early summer, Geum triflorum sends out red-stemmed flower stalks hosting clusters of three rosy red or light maroon globular flowers. Pendulous buds partially open to blooms nearly an inch long, restricted from opening completely by their fused sepals which are punctuated by five pointed sepal lobes. After bees push their way inside to pollinate, the real show begins. Fertilized flowers develop tufted, smoke-like white and pink achenes, one-seeded fruits that do not split to release seed. Blooms turn upright as fruits develop, creating an incredible hazy appearance of abundant rosy smoke plumes, later fading for lovely golden dried interest throughout the summer.
Additionally, many garden varieties prized more for their colorful flowers are commonly used in the landscape, typically hybrids involving Geum quellyon (syn. Geum chiloense/Geum coccineum), also known as scarlet or Chilean avens, a Chilean native perennial. These hybrids are slightly larger, emerging in spring to form a mound up to 24” tall and wide, with large divided, deep green ruffled leaves more rounded and less fuzzy than their Minnesota native relative. Blooming around the same time of year, from spring to early summer, avens bloom tall, branched wiry stems with sprays of upward-facing, strawberry-like colorful blooms with overlapping petals in both single and double forms, sometimes reblooming later in the season, especially when cut back after blooming. Popular varieties include the abundant soft orange blooms of the larger ‘Totally Tangerine,’ bright orange semi-double flowers of the compact ‘Werner Arends,’ or iconic bright red double blooms of ‘Double Bloody Mary.’
Thriving in full or part sun conditions, Geum grow in moist, well-drained soils in full or part sun and are drought tolerant once established, ideally growing in fertile, low to medium moisture soils. Drainage is essential for avens, as plants are intolerant of poorly drained sites or wet conditions and are prone to rot, especially when dormant. Animal resistant due to their fuzzy foliage, Geum are phenomenal low maintenance perennials for pathway edging, low sunny borders, rock gardens, pollinator gardens, and spring bulb gardens to fill in as bulbs fade. An excellent sunny groundcover, avens is excellent when massed but should not be crowded by other taller perennials, unable to compete well with other nearby tall, vigorous plants.