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Primula vialii (orchid primrose)

Primula vialii is a striking perennial, with unusual spikes of pinkish flowers, tipped with red.
Orchid primrose flowers at Kew Gardens

Primula vialii at Kew Gardens

Species information

Scientific name: 

Primula vialii Delavay ex Franch.

Common name: 

orchid primrose, red-hot poker primrose, Chinese pagoda primrose

Conservation status: 

Not evaluated according to IUCN Red List criteria, but not considered to be at risk in the wild.


Wet meadows and sparse woodland.

Key Uses: 


Known hazards: 

Avoided by grazing animals, but no known hazards to humans.


Genus: Primula

About this species

Primula vialii was found by the Scottish plant hunter George Forrest (1873-1932), and was named P. littoniana after his friend, Consul G. Litton of Tengyueh (on the Burma-China frontier), who had provided considerable help in his travels in the locality. Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), the eccentric English writer on mystic and occult subjects, also travelling in China, reported meeting 'a botanist named George Forrest' and described how, when the unfortunate Litton fell ill, 'Forrest and I galloped furiously into the darkness' to get a doctor. Sadly, it was too late, and Litton subsequently died. The name P. littoniana is now relegated to a synonym, as the plant had in fact already been named P. vialii by another plant hunter, the French missionary botanist Père Delavay.


Primula littoniana


Discover more

Geography and distribution

Native to China (north and northwest Yunnan and southwest Sichuan), where it is found growing in wet meadows, near water in valleys, and in thickets of prickly oak bushes, from 2,800 to 4,000 m above sea level.


Primula vialii has stout stems up to 60 cm tall, topped with spires of numerous, tiny, pinkish-purple flowers, which are red at the top of the spike when in bud. The flowers open from June to August. The leaves are erect, spear-shaped, softly hairy, and up to 30 cm long. Propagation is by seed.

Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine


Watercolour image of Primula vialii by Matilda Smith taken from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1910)

Curtis's Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.

Now well over 200 years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis's Botanical Magazine


Primula vialii is grown as an ornamental for its unusual spikes of pinkish flowers, tipped with red.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Two
Germination testing: 100% germination was achieved on a germination medium of 1% agar, at a temperature of 21°C, and a cycle of 12 hours of daylight / 12 hours of darkness


Primula vialii is easily grown from seed in fertile, reasonably moist but well-drained soils in a cool position. It can be grown in partial shade in woodland gardens and does especially well alongside streams or ponds, but can also be grown in open sites providing the soil is moist. The Royal Horticultural Society has given it their Award of Garden Merit (AGM).

This species at Kew

Primula vialii can be seen growing in the Rock Garden at Kew. Pressed and dried specimens are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

References and credits

Cowan, J.M. (ed.) (1952). The Journeys and Introductions of George Forrest VMH. Oxford University Press, Oxford, for the Royal Horticultural Society.

Cullen, J. et al. (eds) (1997). The European Garden Flora, Vol. V. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Forrest, G. (1908). Primulaceae from Western Yunnan and Eastern Tibet. In: Notes 19, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.

Hu, Q. & Kelso, S. (2011). Primulaceae: Primula vialii. In: Flora of China. Available online (accessed 07 February 2011).

Phillips, R. & Rix, M. (1991). Perennials, Vol.1. Pan Books Ltd, London.

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. (2008) Seed Information Database (SID). Version 7.1. Available online (accessed 23 January 2011).

The Plant List, Version 1 (2010). Primula vialiiAvailable online (accessed 24 January 2011).

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions. 

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