Eastern Shooting Star
by Beth Stetenfeld
Planting shooting stars (Primula sect. Dodecatheon meadia) in the garden is a journey of chance—they can be challenging to establish but are well worth the endeavor.
There are more than a dozen species of shooting stars native to North America. Two are native to Minnesota—Primula meadia and P. amethystinum—but both are rare. Both perform well in gardens once established, however. Formerly of the separate genus Dodecatheon, the plants are now placed as a section within the genus Primula. Eastern shooting star (P. meadia) is common throughout the Upper Midwest, although it’s listed as endangered in Minnesota.
Eastern shooting stars add grace and character to the garden with their clusters of eight to 20 downward-nodding blooms on each flower scape. Flowers range in color from white to light pink or lavender.
Beyond the basic beauty of these early- to late-spring bloomers, they bring many other benefits to the garden. They provide plentiful pollen for native bees; they’re virtually disease-free; they bloom for about a month; and they tend to be rabbit- and deer-resistant.
The blooms benefit bumblebees and other native bees, which visit the flowers to collect pollen. Bumblebees are specially equipped to hang from below the flowers and vibrate, shaking pollen loose for “buzz pollination.”
Eastern shooting stars are ephemeral; after their extended spring blooming and early summer seeding, they go completely dormant by mid- to late summer. Good companion plants include those that bloom in summer and fall, as well as those that prefer similar growing conditions. Examples include wild geranium (G. maculatum) and New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).
Once plentiful on America’s prairies, eastern shooting star is still often found in dry to wet prairie remnants; in moist, open woods; and along rocky slopes within its native range. Shooting stars prefer slightly acidic, moist soil, although they can be found in mesic to dry, clay, rocky or sandy soils. While they prefer partial shade, they can tolerate full sun in cooler zones and full shade if soil is moist in the spring.
Shooting stars can be started from seed, but planting by division is generally more reliable. Seeds should be sown fresh in summer or stratified over the winter. Plants, whether propagated by division in fall when dormant or transplanted in spring, grow slowly and can take several years to flower.
Because of its relative rarity and its ephemeral nature, this plant is a pleasure to encounter in the wild. Eastern shooting star wasn’t found in the state until 1980, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, although it was more common just east and south, in Wisconsin and Iowa. While endangered in Minnesota, it grows well in garden settings and is readily available throughout the nursery trade.
Native plant enthusiast Beth Stetenfeld is a garden blogger and writer, and a master naturalist volunteer and instructor.
At a Glance: Eastern Shooting Star
Hardiness: USDA Zone 4.
Native Habitat: Moist open woods; dry to wet prairies. Native from Minnesota through New York, and south from Texas through Florida.
Size: 1 to 2 feet tall; 9 inches to 1 foot wide.
Site: Best grown in evenly moist, well-drained soil, in part shade; but tolerates full shade and full sun with adequate soil moisture.
Propagation: Difficult to grow from seed; must be sown fresh in summer or stratified during winter. Grows well from purchased plants or division.
Cultivars and Other Species: Primula meadia and related species in North America—including P. amethystinum and more than a dozen others—are members of the primrose family (Primulaceae). Several cultivars are available.