Western arctic shootingstar
Primula frigida (Cham. & Schltdl.) A.R. Mast & Reveal
Western arctic shooting star
Frigid shooting star (another Dodecatheon goes by this name and is only found in Oregon and Washington)
Dodecatheon frigidum Cham. & Schlecht.
Uses: None found directly related to Primula frigida. Roots or leaves of other species within the genus may be boiled or roasted and eaten, but there are very few (perhaps no credible) sources commenting on the edibility, so it’s probably best to avoid eating completely.
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Western arctic shootingstar is easily recognized by the shape of its nodding flowers, with swept-back petals and a protruding anther, resembling a shooting star (or more like a dart if you have actually seen a shooting star). It may have 2-7 flowers (although typically 2-3) flowers on an erect, long, tubular stem, 8-30 cm (3-12 in) in height. Each flower may have 4-6 long petals, white at the base to magenta or purple. The stamen emerges through the white ring around the base of the petals (actually corolla lobes). Unlike many other shootingstars, Primula frigida’s filament tube isn’t typically yellow. The stigma is not typically enlarged compared to the style, which only slightly emerges from the maroon anthers.
The stem emerges from a cluster of ovate to oval leaves, approximately 4-12 cm (1.5-5 in) long. The roots are reddish, winged, and fibrous without bulblets (sometimes present in other species of Dodecatheon).
Distribution and Habitat
Primula frigida is the northernmost species of shootingstar (formerly Dodecatheon genus). It is native to Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, and northwest Saskatchewan. It can also be found in northeastern Siberia.
Western arctic shootingstar prefers moist soil and is frequently found in boggy depressions, moist tundra, stream banks, lake shores, sparse conifer woodlands, or near melting snow or permafrost.
What’s in a name?
The nomenclature behind the western arctic shootingstar is anything but straightforward. Aside from the fact that someone smushed shooting star into one word, there is inconsistency in the scientific name. I’m not a biologist, but I thoroughly researched and became quite confused and frustrated while researching this plant. Because of my uncertainty, I thought this information might be worthwhile to others trying to identify these flowers.
According to the Interagency Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), the accepted scientific name of the western arctic shootingstar is Primula frigida. ITIS is supposed to fulfill a need for coordinated systematics designated by the White House Subcommittee on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics. So basically, ITIS should standardize the nomenclature so there is no confusion between government agencies like the USDA, USGS, EPA, NOAA, DOI, etc. But, you won’t even find the name Primula frigida in the USDA-NRCS database. Instead, the USDA lists this as Dodecatheon frigidum. In fact, very commonly, I only found instances from many sources of Dodecatheon frigidum or Primula frigida without cross-reference. Only a few sources and websites listed them as synonyms.
*Updated Aug 17, 2020 – I reached out to a representative at the USDA and was told that the public online database hasn’t been updated in a few years. They are working on a new version slated to be released in November 2020. It will include the Dodecatheon into Primula change.
Why Two Names?
The genus Dodecatheon was formerly considered a separate genus from Primula, both in the family Primulaceae. It was a small genus containing only 17 flowering plants, commonly known as shootingstars. Austin Mast and James Reveal transferred the Dodecatheon genus to Primula when it was recognized that Dodecatheon falls under a subgenus within Primula named Auriculastrum. If the two are kept listed as a separate genus, Primula is paraphyletic, consisting of all of the genus’ last common ancestors, excluding the Dodecatheon.
Biologically, Primula subg. Auriculastrum and Dodecatheon share the feature of involute leaf vernation (leaves roll inward as they emerge from the bud). Also, the basic chromosome number shows that Dodecatheon is a member of the basal group that evolved from Primula. The main difference between Primula and Dodecatheon is that the latter developed its flower shape as an adaptation to bees’ buzz-pollination (using the wings’ vibration to release pollen while holding on to the petals). Still, it did so with only a small genetic change. Reveal argues that even with this more advanced adaptation, there is still less of a genetic difference between Dodecatheon and Primula than there is between different subgenera within Primula.
Not everyone has come to accept this adoption. I’m not sure why some organizations like the USDA haven’t even taken on the revised name as a synonym, even though it is the accepted name in the ITIS database. Flora of North America lists Primula frigida as a synonym. Many gardeners love the Dodecatheon and are hesitant to change. In fact, the North American Rock Garden Society emblem is the Dodecatheon. There is definitely an emotional connection to many people with the name Dodecatheon. Even one of the authors of the paper advocating for the change to Primula, James Reveal, wrote a humorous piece in North American Rock Garden Society Quarterly in which he states,
In my heart two things are true: shooting stars will always belong to Dodecatheon, and, regretfully, all of them are actually members of the genus Primula.When a Shooting Star is Really a Primrose (2008)
To further add to the confusion regarding the common name, although anecdotal, I have never heard an Alaskan utter the name western arctic shootingstar. This is most likely due to the use of the common name frigid shootingstar in Verna Pratt’s Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, which is easily one of the most popular and cited wildflower guides for the state. It makes perfect sense that the common name would be frigid shootingstar, referencing either version of the scientific name. And yet, that familiar name is also given to Primula austrofrigida (syn. Dodecatheon austrofrigidum) which is only found in Washington and Oregon.
Long story short. The names Primula frigida, Dodecatheon frigidum, western arctic shootingstar, and frigid shootingstar all describe the same plant. Except that frigid shootingstar is also the official common name of a plant only native to Washington state and Oregon, Dodecatheon austrofrigidum. To avoid ambiguity in this article, I use the common name western arctic shootingstar.
References and Further Reading
Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, Pratt, Verna E. pg 18
8. Dodecatheon frigidum Chamisso & Schlechtendal, Linnaea. 1: 222. 1826., Flora of North America (www.eFloras.org)
Primula frigida (Cham. & Schltdl.) A.R. Mast & Reveal, ITIS Database
Dodecatheon frigidum Cham. & Schltdl. western arctic shootingstar, USDA-NRCS Database
Shooting Star, USDA Idaho Panhandle National Forests (mention of edible value)
Dodecatheon vs. Primula
Revision of Dodecatheon (Primulaceae), Reveal, James L., plantsystematics.org
Dodecatheon or Primula? (Updated 2017).
Eveleigh, Pam. 2000-(continuously updated). Primula World, A Visual Reference for the Genus Primula. Web. Accessed 8/12/2020.
Mast, A., Reveal, J., Transfer of Dodecatheon to Primula (Primulaceae). (2007). Brittonia. 59, 79-82.
4. Dodecatheon Linnaeus, Sp. Pl. 1: 144. 1753; Gen. Pl. ed. 5, 71. 1754., Flora of North America
Reveal, James L., When a Shooting Star Is Really A Primrose, (2008), North American Rock Garden Society Quarterly. 66, 83-93.