Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An Intrepid Plantswoman & Primula Hunter

Primula secundiflora (pink) and Primula sikkimensis (yellow)
Photograph by Pam Eveleigh 

Most people who have a passion for a special plant might start a small collection in their home gardens, but Pam Eveleigh's interest in the both the genus Primula and other alpine plants has lead her on journeys to exotic destinations like China and Tibet. 

"There are always interesting things to discover when looking at plants in the wild, new variations or even a new species," Pam tells me,"Finding a hybrid swarm of plants in the Sikkimensis Section in Tibet, along with at least one hybrid parent, was exciting. We also found Primula agleniana, a magnificent species with large flowers and interesting spear shaped leaves, by chance, when we managed to get up a side valley near Mt. Namcha Barwa (7,782m)."

When I happened upon Pam's website, Primula World, a reference on the genus primula for which she is known internationally, I was immediately intrigued by the gallery of primula images from such far flung locations. For whatever reason, I had always thought of Primulas primarily as an English cottage garden plant.

Photograph by Pam Eveleigh 

Primula vulgaris is in fact native to the UK, as well as a large part of Europe. It ranges as far north as Norway and as far east as the Caucaus Mountains, but Primula species native to Europe account for only a small percentage of the world's Primulas.

Pam:"There is a handful of European and North American species and a few outliers around Russia and Egypt, but 80% of all Primula species are found in the Sino-Himalayan area. Essentially they are Himalayan alpine plants. In total, there are about 350-400 recognized species depending on what authority you follow."

Making a study of Primulas in the wild, made travel to Europe and Asia necessary for this resident of Calgary, Alberta. 

Pam: "I am interested in the characteristics that distinguish between Primula species and the variations a species exhibits. I enjoy documenting this through images, and since we have very few species near Calgary, I must travel to do this. I am also interested in other alpine plants, so to go to places that are plant species rich is always exciting."

In 2007, Pam journeyed with a small group of like-minded primula enthusiasts to Tibet. 

Travelling by jeep, the small party followed the main highway from Shangri-La (previously known as Zhongdian) to Yunnan and on to Lhasa, with a side trip to an area southeast of Lhasa. (Map of the journey here.)

Primula cawdoriana
Photograph by Pam Eveleigh 

Pam: "We were very lucky to spot Primula cawdoriana growing on the cliffs beside the road. This species had long, deep purple-blue fringed flowers, lightly dusted with farina (a white powder). They grow right in the moss which covers the rocks, so they have plenty of moisture, but are well drained. 

Primula littledalei
Photograph by Pam Eveleigh 

"We also saw Primula littledalei which grows in quartz sand beneath overhanging rocks. These Primula only get moisture that wicks into the soil, not from directly overhead. The flowers are a beautiful delicate pink and the leaves are round, coated with farina giving the plants a tidy appearance."

Mountain in Sichuan
Photograph by Pam Eveleigh 

In 2009 and 2014 Pam visited the Yunnan and  Sichuan provinces in China. 

The Yunnan/Sichuan area is considered to be the centre of diversity for the genus Primula (see Pam's map for the 2009 trip and the map for 2014 trip).

Photograph by Pam Eveleigh 

Photo Collage by Pam Eveleigh 

Pam: "We were able to visit Muli, a semi-autonomous region within Sichuan, and see Primula vialii in the wild (shown in the collage above on the bottom left)." 

"Even though this species is common in cultivation, it is rare in the wild. I was also thrilled to see Primula faberi, an unusual wet meadow species with lovely yellow bell flowers (shown in the collage's upper right corner)."

Primula membranifolia from Yunnan

"In 2014, our focus was the Bullate Section species, but we happened to also find the areas where other species were first collected including Primula malvacea, Primula poissonii and Primula pulchella. "

"Using historical expedition information, we were also able to successfully find and photograph Primula ambita for the first time." 

This collage of images from Pam's European travels includes pictures of Primula veris (TR) on the top right, Primula marginata (LL) on the bottom left.

Pam's search for Primulas has also taken her to France, Italy and Austria. In 2011, she began a trip that started in Northern Italy and ended in Imst, Austria. The focus of this trip was a search for Primula recubariensis and Primula albenensis.

Pam: "In 2012, I joined John Richards (author of the book "Primula") and his wife Sheila for a trip to France and Italy. The primary reason was to look for Primula allionii, a species which is endemic to Maritime Alps. It was very late in the season for Primula allionii, as it blooms very early, but we did manage to find it still in flower near Trinita, Italy."

Photograph by Pam Eveleigh 

Like so many world travellers, Pam's garden at home in Calgary has been inspired by her travels abroad. Not surprisingly then, alpines and primula feature largely among her collection of herbaceous plants. I have to confess that I was surprised to learn that Primulas faired well in Pam's garden despite Calgary's weather extremes.

Pam: "Depending on the species, plants can take the cold temperatures of Calgary, even though our snow cover isn't reliable."

Primula allionii 

So what conditions do Primula's prefer, I wanted to know?

Pam:"Often Primulas are meadow plants that bloom in full sun in the spring before the other meadow plants grow tall. The taller plants help to shade Primula plants in the late summer, though the primula seeds are held in capsules on elongated stems that rise above other foliage to ripen in the sun. These meadows are wet in spring (though not stagnant), but tend to dry out in summer."

"Often people assume that they need to grow Primula in shade, but though there are many forest species that do like shade, most like the combination of wet and sun, rather than wet and shade. Shady places tend to be the moist part of our gardens, so that is why primulas do better there than in other parts of the garden."

Primula aureta
Photograph by Terry Mitchell

I asked Pam if she has a favourite Primula

"I have lots of favourite species!" she says, "Mostly I am attracted to the unusual ones, which are often difficult to grow, if they are even obtainable.

"My current favourite changes as I study different species. Primula aureta from Nepal has probably been on my list for a long time, as has been Primula kingii from Bhutan/Tibet."

Primula kingii
Picture by Margaret Thorne

Here in Ontario, my local nursery has maybe ten of the most commonly available cultivars of Primula on offer for home gardeners. I asked Pam why, when there were so many species of Primula, were there are so few cultivars available for purchase.

Pam: "Nurseries will carry what sells and depend on local suppliers. Specialist nurseries are more willing to propagate species to be able to keep supplying them, and to take chances on growing species from a small batch of seeds. They are a better bet for finding different Primulas to grow, but if you want to expand your Primula species collection, it is best to grow them yourself from seed."

Pam in a field of Primula fasiculata

Generally one doesn't associate gardening with adventure, but Pam proves that gardening can be as exciting as you chose to make it. And as someone recently reminded me, what you get out of gardening depends on what you bring to it.

Many thanks to Pam for sharing her photographs and the story of her travels.

More information and Links:

About Pam:
Pam Eveleigh is the founding member of the Calgary Rock and Alpine Garden Society (CRAGS). She is internationally known for her website: Pam is an avid hiker and photographer with a considerable knowledge of native flora.

Primula World was created by Pam Eveleigh in 2000. At the core of the website is a Species Gallery which contains several thousand images of Primula species, as well as relevant links to herbarium specimens and notes. The homepage blog includes Primula references and bits of information on different primula species. Click here for a link to the Primula World home page

Handy links to Primula World References:
• Primula Growing tips
Flower parts & features with photographs and a diagram
• How to grow primulas from seed
Propagation from leaves
• How to hand pollinate a primula


  1. Wow - that first picture is stunning. What an interesting lady - so knowledgeable - you have to admire the zeal of plant hunters don't you. I have a soft spot for primulas and cowslips - little knowing of their origins - so I have learned quite a lot through this post. Alpines are in a little world of their own and when you see them in a nursery - little miniatures - you can't help but fall in love with them - I am a big fan I have to say.

  2. Very interesting! Her photography is great. She has had some very interesting trips!

  3. Comment from Donna Evers via email:
    What a delight to see your post on Pam Eveleigh! She was a guest speaker at the ARHS and the NSRGC a few years ago. She was one of the best presenter/speaker we have ever had! Her website is a remarkable resource. She make a lasting impression.We think of her often. Last night at an ARHS meeting a friend was telling me that she had buds on primula seed she got at Pam's workshop. I also have blooms on Primula rosea from the same workshop. If you have a chance to hear her speak don’t miss it. So nice to connect with her again through your blog.

  4. She is an inspiring gardening I tell you! Her travels are just extraordinary to find this species in the wild like she's done. And the photographs that she has taken of the various types are GORGEOUS!! I can see why she has such a fondness for them! Thank you for passing along her work Jennifer as her photos alone are amazing!! Wishing you a wonderful Thursday! Nicole xo

  5. What a super post about a fantastic lady! Primulas are one of my favourite plant families and I seem to have aquired quite a few different ones over the years. I usually buy seed or plants from specialist nurseries, they are so easy to propogate from seed.

  6. All these primulas are AWEsome! :) I hope to see the Primula Albenensis too one day. Thanks for sharing all the lovely photos.

  7. What a fantastic story. I can only imagine going to some far off romantic country in search of my favorite flowers. The photos are breath taking. This tempts me to add some primula to my garden but I never see the wonderful varieties available here.

  8. That was such an amazing trip to China for Primulas in the wild by Pam. Thank you for bringing this story to us. Her beautiful photos of the scenery and people just made the trip seem like we came along. Wonderful post.

  9. Very interesting post, Jennifer. I've read with great interest, now I learned more about primulas and the photographer Pam Eveleigh, thank you.
    The photo of Primula allionii is wonderful!

  10. What a lovely selection of photo's. From scenes, different places, the people and of course the colourful plants.

    I really enjoyed the read - thank you.

    All the best Jan

  11. I confess to being one of those who knew nothing about primulas other than the traditional primroses available in our local nurseries. Thanks for expanding my horizons, Jennifer, and thanks for the visible treat--all Pam's photos are wonderful!


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