Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
A plant with a strange distribution in North Dakota, early cinquefoil occurs from Dickey County northward into the central, northwestern, and western counties, but it noticeably absent from the southern Missouri River drainage and the Red River Valley. Elsewhere, the plant ranges from Alberta through the Rocky Mountains westward to Idaho and southward into Colorado.
Like many prairie plants, early cinquefoil has a heavy rootcrown that branches from a thick perennial taproot. The plant first appears as a one-inch tall tuft of hairy leaves that are silvery on one side and greenish on the other. Each leaf is composed of five leaflets. A few short stems bearing several flowers about one-half inch wide form a few days later. The five petals are lemon yellow. By early summer, the flower-bearing stems elongate to about four inches, and several dozen seeds mature on a rounded structure at the center of each flower.
In North Dakota, early cinquefoil has been found in bloom as early as 23 April, but usually is most conspicuous during early May. Look for early cinquefoil around hilltops in heavily grazed native prairie.
The cinquefoils, (meaning "five leaved") are members of the rose family (Rosaceae). This large family includes pears, apples, raspberries, plums, and dozens of other economically important trees, shrubs, and herbs. The generic name Potentilla is a diminutive of the Latin potens, "powerful," originally applied to silverweed (another Potentilla also found in North Dakota) because of its reputed medicinal powers. The specific name concinna means "beautiful" in botanical Latin. Early cinquefoil was first described for science by botanist John Richardson in his famous Franklin Journals of 1823.