Natural Connections Beautiful Bird's-Eye Primrose

'I discovered that Bird's-eye Primrose (Primula mistassinica) is a Species of Special Concern in Wisconsin'

Natural Connections Beautiful Bird's-Eye Primrose

Giddy with delight, I darted from anemones to bell heathers to avens, taking photos of delightful tundra wildflowers I’d never seen before. The late-June sky was overcast, as it was during much of that trip to Alaska in the summer of 2018, but the blossoms were plenty radiant on their own. That wildflower-lined walk up Flattop Mountain – an extremely popular hiking trail right in Anchorage – is one of my favorite memories of the summer.

When I uploaded photos of one particularly flashy hot pink flower with a sunny yellow center, I discovered that Bird's-eye Primrose (Primula mistassinica) is a Species of Special Concern in Wisconsin, and also occurs along the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota. Since one of my favorite things is finding old friends in a new place – or new friends in a familiar place – I added “see Bird's-eye Primrose near home” to my mental bucket list.

Well, life’s been busy since I returned from Alaska, especially during the May-June window when Bird's-eye Primrose blooms in the Upper Midwest. At the Museum, we dive straight from exhibit construction headlong into school field trip season, and then get the summer started by hosting a Wisconsin Master Naturalist Training. Plus, as far as I can tell, you need a boat to see this flower in northern Wisconsin, since they cling to sandstone cliffs on the Bayfield Peninsula and in the Apostle Islands.

But last week, with evening sunshine glinting off the riffled waters of Lake Superior’s North Shore, and a surprisingly warm breeze wafting over the spit of wave-washed bedrock, a flower once again caught my eye. Rock-hopping over, I discovered the pink petals and yellow centers I’d been looking for. Notches in each of the five petals gave them a lovely heart shape. At the base of the flower’s wiry stem was a little rosette of bright green leaves with wavy edges.

This flower was one of dozens all sprouting from the cushion of moss in a little bedrock nook. Besides the Bird's-eye Primrose, quite a diversity of plants crowded together in this island of habitat surrounded by a sea of bedrock.

Looking up and across the shore, I was delighted to discover a haze of pink covering a much larger area than I’d first realized. A gravely rock bar hidden behind a breakwater hosted many clusters of primrose tucked up against protective bushes and finding footholds in water-loving moss.

These two habitats are representative of where you’ll find Bird's-eye Primrose across their range. In Vermont; Door County, Wisconsin; and Banning State Park in Minnesota, they grow on cool, damp bedrock ledges, especially those with lots of calcium. In Maine, they are common on the gravel bars of the St. John River where taller plants are scoured away by a flood of ice each spring. These locations are all at the southern edge of the flower’s range. In their main range of Canada and Alaska, they can grow in a wider variety of habitats. For example, the tundra of Alaska is often a mix of moss, gravel, and rock.

While not common down here, Bird's-eye Primrose is the most widespread of their genus, and wherever they grow, they look a little different. The petals of my Alaska friends were intensely fuchsia and so deeply notched that they looked like 10 separate petals at first glance. In Minnesota, the petals were pale pink with a modest notch. These characters, plus their size, the shape of their leaves, the amount of a powdery coating on their leaves and stems, and the brightness of their yellow eye can all vary from place to place. Botanists have sometimes separated the different looks into separate subspecies, but DNA studies have concluded that the variation is contained with a single species of Bird's-eye Primrose.

As I nosed around taking photos in the mini-moss ecosystem on the North Shore, a different, yellow-green rosette of leaves caught my eye. These weren’t just a different form of primrose. With edges that curl inward and a coating of sticky hairs, I recognized this as another species on my botanical bucket list. This rare plant doesn’t bloom until later in June, so we’ll all have to wait patiently to learn more about them.

Just a quick reminder here, if you’re exploring sensitive habitats where there might be rare plants, watch where you step, and consider keeping your dog on a leash. Never pick these flowers. Not only are they legally protected, they don’t last long in a bouquet and are difficult to transplant. Instead, enjoy them gently in the wild.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is open with our brand-new exhibit: “Anaamaagon: Under the Snow.” Our Summer Calendar of Events is open for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.

Last Update: May 22, 2024 8:11 am CDT

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