Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Bird's-eye Primrose

The bird's-eye primrose, Primula mistassinica, is a northern wildflower found on the tundra of Alaska, in the chilly regions of Canada, around the cold Great Lakes, and on the sheer dolomite cliffs above the Apple River in the Driftless Area of Illinois. When Dr. Herman Pepoon first found this plant over 90 years ago in Apple River Canyon in northwestern Illinois, he excitedly reported that the bird's-eye primrose was "tinting the bare rock a lavender purple with its multitudes of blossoms." Pepoon's peers reacted with much skepticism because they believed the bird's-eye primrose was a plant of boreal regions and that Illinois was too far south for it to grow. He countered the criticism with an invitation for all to come with him the next April on a primrose walk to prove his statement true. His peers came. They drove as far as they could into the canyons and walked the rest of the way to where the cliffs rose above the river. There for all to see with telescopes and binoculars was the bird's-eye or Canadian primrose--proof positive that it did indeed grow in Illinois!

The bird's-eye primrose, Primula mistassinica.

Bird's-eye primrose is a diminutive plant. Its flower, with five heart-shaped, lavender-pink blossoms that encircle a round yellow dot called the bird's eye, is less than the diameter of a penny. Several blooms may form a cluster at the tip of a slender stalk that rises only 2-5 inches above a small rosette of pale-green notched leaves. Instead of growing upward toward the sun, this plant shoots out from the cliff at right angles. By the end of April, the plant is in full bloom, and by summer the seeds are ripe. The light seeds fall from the plant, mostly into the Apple River, but a few are deposited near the parent plant. Each plant is able to survive in less than a teaspoon of soil in the cranny of a rock, exposed to winds, sun, cold, and storms.

Botanists speculate that these northern denizens were carried south with the advance of the Canadian ice sheets. Plants that normally perished beneath the weight and scouring power of the glacier survived if their seeds were transported southward, on wind or ice, and deposited in a similar haunt. The glaciers missed the Apple River Canyon area and here the tiny seeds of the primrose lodged into the crannies of the dolomite cliffs. These cliffs, with a north and east exposure, are massive, thick-bedded, and towering. The dripping water, cool, clear, and saturated with lime, keeps the roots constantly cool in summer. In winter, the water keeps the immediate surface rock layers above freezing, ultimately forming ice cascades that cover the cliff face and protect the root and crown buried beneath.

Although sights of the primrose "tinting the rock purple" are no longer possible, Pepoon's botanical pilgrimage may still be duplicated today. Just follow the Primrose Trail at Apple River Canyon State Park and cross the creek for a close-up view of this true glacial relict.

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