Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Also called "torch flower," "maidenhair," "prairie smoke," and "old mans beard," purple avens is common on native prairies in all but extreme south central North Dakota. The plant is widely distributed across southern Canada and the central and northern United States.
Purple avens grows about a foot tall from a thick perennial root. The highly dissected leaves are about six inches long and arise mostly from the base. There are usually three long-stalked flowers at the top of each stem. The distinctive appearance of the plant is due to the styles (parts of the female reproductive organs), which greatly elongate in fruit to form purplish-bronze plumes nearly three inches long. Another striking feature is the contrast between the sepals (outer floral envelope) which are dark reddish-purple, and the petals (inner floral envelope) which are yellowish-white.
Purple avens seems little effected by grazing and can be found on almost any dry site on the prairie. Unlike several of the 60 or so other Geums in the North Temperate Zone, purple avens has no known economic value.
The Geums are members of the rose family (Rosaceae), which contains about 3,000 species, including the familiar spiraeas, strawberries, raspberries, apricots, cherries, apples, plums, and mountain ash. Geum is an old name used by the great Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-70 A.D.) for some plant. The specific epithet triflorum means "three-flowered" in botanical Latin. Purple avens was first described for science by Frederick Pursh in the early l8OO's.