July 31, 2018

The Incredible Primroses of Yunnan and Western China

Am I an adventure junkie? Not exactly, but I do like travel, different cultures, world travel as well as plants and most of nature (except snakes), so any opportunity to geek out with some friends on a single genus is an opportunity I am going to jump at. In this part of northwestern Yunnan there are a number of plants one could possibly geek-out on like rhododendrons, corydalis, lilies or wild orchids, but really it's the primroses that brought me here.

Half of the world's wild primroses come from the vast landscape of the Himalayas, with 500 species worldwide, at least 300 of them are found in this mountain range and over a hundred in Yunnan.  Since primulaceae is one of my most favorite plant families, I wanted to dedicate a single post to just primula that we saw on this trek, so here you go. Fair warning though - the names are still being worked out, I only have a couple of good books to key out what we found, so if you're an expert, feel free to correct me and I'll credit you. Aside from that, enjoy the shots!

The tiny and lovely mat-forming Primula nanobella, here on the top of Shikashan, elevation 14,000. We saw this on the high mountain tundra found on many mountains from Shangrila, going northwest to the Tibetan border.  Growing no higher than 3 inches in some places it virtually covered the ground. The tube or 'mouth' is filled with fibers or a pom pom of tiny lavender hairs which make the center of the flower appear blurry or congested, an interesting feature that liked to freak out my camera as it focused.

The singular flowers of P. nanobella arise from the tiniest rosettes, no larger than a thumbnail, and as you can see, their color was practically a florescent violet.

I shot lots of videos as well, which I hope to edit into some project in the future, or just to show at future talks, but this tiny primrose was very animated as the wiry stems ensured that the flowers would bounce and wave in the strong winds.

Primula dradifolia, Baimashan
Another view of what I believe is P. dryadifolia. I just can't find a good image in any of my books.

Here is a view of our group botanizing in an open alpine meadow on Shikashan (or Shika Shan, as 'Shika' means deer, and 'Shan' means mountain). This meadow was full of primroses and that low shrub you see blooming is rhododendron.

PRimroses in the section Muscarioides look somewhat like the Dutch bulb Muscari. 

Primula amethystina subsp. brevifolia on Shika Shan, Yunnan, China.

Primula apoclita, Yunnan, Zhongdian, Shika Shan near 14,000'.

At lower elevation this may be the same species but at 12,000' more elongated.

 P. graminifolia 

One of the mystery primroses. Please share your ID notes if you think that you know which one this is. Shika Shan, NW. Yunnan around 12,000'.

P, chionantha subsp. sinopurpurea

More Primula chionantha subsp. sinopurpurea but shorter, as this is at high elevation on the summit of ShikaShan, 4400m.

Getting familiar with a nice specimen of Primula chionantha subsp. sinopurpurea. I know - I look bulked up -No fat shaming allowed, I just should have removed the two sweat shirts I had on under my rain gear -- it was cold!

P, chionantha subsp. sinopurpurea on the mining road leading up to Hong Shan.

Primula secundiflora, near the pass at Hong Shan, 4500 m.

Primula florida (or P. yunnanensis?) , Baimashan, NW Yunnan

A closer view of P.florida or P. yunnanensis. Please correct me if you know which species this is.

My eyes are getting tired, but I cannot seem to ID this one...any ideas?

P. sikkimensis , perhaps var.pseudosikkimensus however, this was at high elevation on Shikashan at 14,000' and not on Yulongxueshan in NW Yunnan where the variant is presumably limited to at high elevation. The large blossoms and short stature at high elevation make it difficult to ID. I welcome thoughts from the primula experts.

Of all the primula species it is this beauty, the fragrant (as Panayoti Kelaidis From the Denver Botanic Garden demonstrates here) Primula sikkimensis that really puts on a show as it often forms great colonies both at high elevation and above 9,000' throughout this part of the Himalaya. We found spectacular colonies near streams and seeps throughout our trek.

At high elevation, such as this stream bed on Hongshan near 15,000' the colonies stopped us in our tracks.

But near alpine lakes, the show often became truly spectacular, such as this colony nearly 1/8 mile long at Tianchi lake 3850m. Even trying to capture an image that would show the immense scene was challenging. You can see how dense these were growing. Just amazing, as I begin to run out of adjectives.

The massive colonies of P. sikkimensis extended around the lake.

Another colony-forming primrose is this pink beauty, if only we could grow it here in New Engand! Primula secundiflora is just another one of those Himalayan primroses which most of us could only dream of growing, yet here it grows in abundance, often forming large colonies near streams and wet bogs, deceiving us all with its weedy appearance. Don't taiunt us P. secundiflora!

We came across colonies of P. secundiflora everywhere, but mostly between the areas around Zongdian (Shangrila) and Baimashan.

As you can see, some of the colonies were massive and every where one looked, there were thousands of plants.

And then this happened. Primula overload once you mix it all together. So if you garden designers believe that yellow and magenta cant work together, don't tell Mother Nature. Both Primula secundiflora and P. sikkimensis growing on a wide seep at Tianchi Lake which is still at high elevation near 3800m. There were millions of them.

Other primroses colonize as well as if the above experiences weren't enough. Here are at least three species of primroses, maybe more. Most of the color in this meadow comes from the pale yellow P. sikkimensis and the pink  P. zambalensis.

Colonies of P. zambalensis around Dechin and the high passes of Bai Ma Shan were quite variable, with some completely white and every shade of violet-pink inbetween.

Every plant of this primula looks like a perfect pot plant.

Here is one of the nearly white forms.

P. aemula, Shika Shan

At lower elevations, if one can consider 11,000' low, we found primula in the woodlands. Here is P. polyneura on Baimashan.

P. polyneura with its wiry stems and delicate blooms in a woodland.

Scott Smith from Colorado treks across a high elevation pass loaded with tiny rhododendron in full bloom and even more primroses. The ten of us were starting to get tired on these last few days, but all it took was a single sighting of another rare plant to get us climbing high. This day we went the highest, up to 16,500'.

Throughout much of this area were other genus within primulaceae, so it makes sense to me to include a few from the genus Androsace, as they are so closely akin to primroses.

Androsace zambalensis (my guess). Please correct me.

I probably shouldnt be covering Androsace, as I am not getting the names right, but I dont want this to hold up a post. This possibly is Androsace delavayi.

Many Androsace form rosettes or even tight buns at high elevation, but this one doesn't.  Perhaps A. mariae.

I think this is Androsace spinulifera

Androsace delavayi

Perhaps the most lovely Androsace is this one we found on a knoll just above the Zhongdian plain, A. bulleyana.

Just above the road the encircles the great plain of Zhongdian in Shangrila were large colonies of this bright red Andnrosace. It forms tiny rosettes and long, wiry stems topped off with bright red umbels.

Androsace bulleyana in full sun growing in grass.

As you can see, primulaceae were found at all levels and in every location here in Northwestern Yunnan near the Tibetan borderlands. Truly a primrose-rich area and a sight few plant people ever get to see as most plant collectors collect in the autumn and not during the bloom season just after snowmelt in late spring and the Himalayan summer in June and early July.


  1. Hi Matt
    I have to confess I am here because from link to link, searching for dahlia inputs, I arrived here one year ago or so.
    Since then, every single post you drop is a 10mn bowl of happiness for me. You can write about your greenhouse, your house, flowers in bloom or your trip here in China, that's an enchantment. Thank you very much for what you do on your blog. Can't wait to read your book. I wish you'll prove me wrong but I don't think it will be a best seller here in France. However, you can count on me to be among the few Frenchies to have your book on my bookshelf.
    Thanks a lot Matt, enjoy your trip!

    1. Wow, comments like yours Ludo are what keep me going. Much appreciated. I do hope a few Frenchies like the book, it should be on sale there as well, but not sure if it is being translated into French. It might appeal as I cover many French vegetables (many varieties of artichokes and how to force fancy endive for example). Much of my step-by-step content had to be cut of course - the book was just running too long, but I think the photos are nice. Thanks again for your kind words! -- Matt

  2. I could never manage a trek like this, so it is a real thrill to be able to sit here and look at your posts again and again. The scenes, the specific plants, all of it is breathtaking and beautiful. Thanks so much.

    1. Thanks Linda! Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. I love these photos that you took of the flowers that you came across on your adventure. Half of these flowers I have never even see before... they are so beautiful. Thanks for the share, hope you have a fantastic rest of your week.
    World of Animals

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Anonymous10:58 PM

    dear matt
    sorry to hear of your sister's death, the breaking of the sibling ring a dreaded moment in many families -- but you had the trip, and we have the wonderful, fascinating images. gorgeous plants and a sense of the remoteness of where your travels took you. many thanks!
    all best, ~ 02568

    1. Thanks. Yes, it was tough but it does remind us on how fragile life is - and we move forward without forgetting the past.

  6. Just a stunning post – thanks for sharing your trip. The photos showing the scale of the mixed colonies in the field are particularly nice!


It's always a good thing to leave a comment!