Arctic Primrose – Primula pumila

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Alaska Wildflowers | Pink

The pink flowers of the arctic primrose (primula pumila) in Denali National Park, Alaska

Arctic Primrose

Primula pumila

Common Names

arctic primrose

Synonyms

Primula eximia Greene
Primula tschuktschorum ssp. arctica (E.A. Busch) Á. Löve & D. Löve
Primula tschuktschorum ssp. cairnesiana A.E. Porsild
Primula tschuktschorum ssp. eximia (Greene) A.E. Porsild
Primula tschuktschorum var. arctica (E.A. Busch) Fernald

Subspecies

none

Genus: Primula
Family: Primulaceae
Order: Ericales
Full Classification

Duration – Growth Habit

Perennial – Forb/herb


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Identification and Information

Arctic primrose is a perennial herb, very variable in size as well as the number of flowers, growing to be 2-40 cm tall. It grows from short rhizomes and often has a thick scape-like stem. The leaves are basal and broadly lanceolate. The vegetative parts of the plant are usually farinose, covered in a white powder.

The inflorescence is composed of 3-20 flowers with involucral bracts and attached via pedicel. The pedicels can be slightly erect or nodding. The flowers are trumpet-like with the lobed petals opening outward. The corolla tube is rose-magenta and 1-3 times the length of the bracts. A white ring encloses the stamen typically not protruding beyond the corolla tube. Most of the petals will have a small notch in the center, unlike the similar-looking, rarer Chukchi primrose that is not notched.

Chukchi Primrose Confusion

There seems to be a lot of confusion regarding arctic primrose and another rare species, the Chukchi primrose. The Chukchi primrose lives primarily on the Bering coast in alpine areas. Its range extends down to Bristol Bay and it may be found in the Aleutian archipelago. While there are reports of it being found in the interior of Alaska, I am a bit doubtful of this. Following sources saying that it is found in the Primrose Ridge area of Alaska, I hiked out there in the summer of 2021. I found a lot of arctic primrose, but no Chukchi primrose. It seems to be the case of one person misidentifying it and then others using that reference.

One of the tell-tale differences between the two is that the Chuchki primrose is completely efarinose, lacking the powdery coating on the stem and leaves and having un-notched petals (subtle). As I looked at other photos identifying Chuchki primrose, I found that most of them were farinose, including every photo that I saw identifying the plant in the Denali area. It is possible that Chuchki primrose is found in the interior, but I have yet to see definitive confirmation of that. Searching through records in the Arctos database revealed no specimens outside of coastal regions.

This confusion may be exacerbated by the fact that P. primula and P. tschuktschorum may hybridize.

What’s in a name?

It’s also worth noting that Primula eximia is widely used as the scientific name for arctic primrose, however, that is a synonym and not an accepted name, Primula pumila is the officially accepted name. This is because they were thought to be distinct species until relatively recently. The Global Biodiversity Information Facility lists P. pumila as the synonym. Flora of North America sheds some light on this naming; the epithet pumila means dwarf, but this is not a dwarf plant. However, P. pumila was the earlier usage which gives it priority under the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. And now you know that is a thing that exists.

In this guide, I stick with the taxonomy listed in the Integrated Taxonomic Information System for all of my nomenclatures.

Uses

For information only (typically historical) – I take no responsibility for adverse effects from the use of any plant.

No known uses, unknown if edible – but, some primrose flowers and leaves are known to be edible.

Distribution and Habitat

Primula pumila can be found in Alaska, the Yukon, and eastern coastal Siberia. NatureServe Explorer and the USDA also claim it to be found in the Northwest Territories, while GBIF does not. It is listed as imperiled in the Yukon.

Arctic primrose tends to live in wet to fully saturated soils and in stream beds. It is most often found at higher elevations or in tundra slopes where there is water moving through the soil.

Classification

RankScientific Name (Common Name)
KingdomPlantae (plantes, Planta, Vegetal, plants)
   SubkingdomViridiplantae (green plants)
      InfrakingdomStreptophyta (land plants)
         SuperdivisionEmbryophyta 
            DivisionTracheophyta (vascular plants, tracheophytes)
               SubdivisionSpermatophytina (spermatophytes, seed plants, phanérogames)
                  ClassMagnoliopsida 
                     SuperorderAsteranae 
                        OrderEricales 
                           FamilyPrimulaceae (primroses, primevères)
                              GenusPrimula L. (shootingstar, primrose)
                                 SpeciesPrimula pumila (arctic primrose)

References and Further Reading

Classification and Taxonomy

P. (Ledeb.) Pax Taxonomic Serial No.: 836154, ITIS database

P. eximia Greene arctic primrose, USDA Database

Map and Distribution

P. eximia Greene Published in: Greene. In: Pittonia, 3: 251. (1897)., GBIF

P. pumila (Ledeb.) Pax Published in: Pax. In: Bot. Jahrb. 10: 208. (1888)., GBIF

P. eximia Arctic Primrose, NatureServe Explorer

Description and Information

11. P. pumila (Ledebour) Pax, Bot. Jahrb. Syst. 10: 208. 1888., Flora of North America

Stewart River Training Area Rare Plant Survey 2006, Alaska Natural Heritage Program

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