What is a Windflower?

Greer Hed

"Windflower" is the common name given to many different flowering plants, all from the plant family Ranunculaceae, also known as the buttercup family, and the genus Anemone. The name probably comes from the Greek meaning of the word "anemone," which is "daughter of the wind." Windflowers are usually grown as ornamental garden plants, although they were once also used as medicinal herbs. Most varieties flower very early in the spring, so like other early-blooming flowers like the snowdrop and the crocus, a windflower in bloom is often considered a harbinger of milder weather.

Windflower contains protoanemonin, which can cause burning sensations in the throat.
Windflower contains protoanemonin, which can cause burning sensations in the throat.

Most varieties of windflower are perennial plants, meaning that they live for a relatively long period of time. The plants are also usually herbaceous, meaning that their leaves die after the end of a growing season and are replaced by new leaves the next season. Many species that go by the name "windflower" have leaves that die very early in the season, often by midsummer.

Windflowers were once used medicinally to induce vomiting.
Windflowers were once used medicinally to induce vomiting.

Since there are many species that may be called by this name, the appearance of the plant and the flowers themselves vary. Usually, the leaves are dark green, frond-like, and grow in small clusters. The flowers are usually fairly large and bowl-shaped, and when they grow wild, their color is typically white. Most species grown in gardens have brightly colored flowers, which may be pink, blue, lavender, or crimson.

The windflower is usually grown from a tuber, an organ that plants use to store water and nutrients. A tuber has tiny buds, commonly referred to as "eyes," that cover its outer surface and will eventually sprout to form underground stems called rhizomes. Windflower tubers should be stored in a cool spot in a container for up to a week before planting. If the tubers are stored for too long, they may begin to sprout prematurely.

Usually, the best time to plant windflower tubers is in the autumn, so that the plants will be large and healthy and ready to begin flowering by the spring. The tubers should be planted at a depth of about three inches (about eight centimeters) in moist, richly composted soil. During the winter months, when frost may negatively affect the growth process, the seedlings can be covered with a protective layer of dry leaves or other mulch or litter. The plants generally thrive in shady conditions, and if they are planted in full sun they may require additional protection. For the most part, they are not difficult to maintain, although they are susceptible to infestations by moth larvae.

Many varieties of windflower are poisonous and can cause harm to both humans and animals who ingest them. However, most species also have an unpleasant bitter taste, so high levels of toxicity are uncommon because most people will quickly spit out the plant if they eat it by accident. The plants are poisonous because they contain a chemical called protoanemonin, which is usually found in all parts of the plant including its leaves, flowers, and rhizomes. Protoanemonin can cause severe stomach upset, vomiting, and burning sensations in the throat and mouth. Windflowers and other related plants were once used medicinally to induce vomiting, but in modern times, medical professionals generally advise against taking these plants internally.

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