It had always been a mystery to me why this plant, Geum triflorum, was called Prairie Smoke or even Old Man's Whiskers by the European pioneers. The story goes, as this plant often grew in mats on hillsides that from a distance it looked like smoke...hence the name.
Out trekking through the prairie remnants of Wisconsin with the great botanist Galen Smith there was so much to absorb beyond Early American minutia I never asked. Periodically when I'd see the plant in early Spring looking just like the plants above, later in life, I'd wonder again.
Today after seeing the plants above, I decided enough was enough. And thanks to the internet, which didn't exist back in my serious botany days, and an unknown photographer from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, now I know.
It is their SEED HEADS that look like smoke.
A bit later in the process all the sepals will flatten out, fall away, and the "hairs" become even paler, floating back and forth in unison on the breeze.
Why did it take me sooooo long to look it up? Well it might have been something to do with hawks...