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Gardening 101: Primroses

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Gardening 101: Primroses

February 4, 2018

Primrose, Primula: “First Flower”

It’s easy to spot a primula, its rosette of palest yellow flowers the color of early spring sunshine. This is Primula vulgaris, the common primrose. On the other hand, polyanthus, a retina-irritant in shades of red, magenta and royal blue, is also a primula. We’ll leave these garden cultivars to one side and celebrate the wilder originals.

Photographs by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

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Above: Unlike the winter bedding plants mentioned above, which seem to go on blooming forever, Primula vulgaris is synonymous with spring. It is a wildflower of northern Europe, with a fondness for seeding itself in unlikely cracks of mortar, as well as in hedgerows and across country graveyards.

Primroses are a welcome sight in the garden but they can become too comfortable in your flower beds. In these luxurious surroundings they behave as badly as their spring companions, bluebells, spreading everywhere, with leaves that grow disproportionately after flowering.

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Above: Primulas hybridize, all too readily. For every pristine primrose, there is another on long stems (as seen here), which is still nice, or several of a mucky pink, which isn’t. These variations have cross-pollinated with garden cultivars, while the specimen above is a false oxlip, a cross between a primrose and a cowslip.

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Above: Common primrose, or Primula vulgaris, is happiest in rough grass, with sunshine or dappled shade.

Cheat Sheet

  • Primula is a large and varied family, with different branches attracting their own devotees. Primula auricula, with its Elizabethan colors and lacy edging, is bred to show standards. Drumstick and candelabra primula have tall stalks, the latter in dreamy hues of peach.
  • Barely identifiable as a primula is P. vialli, which grows in what can only be described as a red terminal conical spike with pink flowers opening from the base. Another fashionable variety is the almost all-green Primula ‘Francesca’.
  • Common primrose is a more subtle shade of yellow than other spring flowers like celandine and aconite. It naturalizes well with contrasting pale purple Crocus tomassinianus.

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Above: Primula elatior, the Oxlip, is not a hybrid but it does cross easily.

Keep It Alive

  • With primula it’s especially important to look at the plant’s native conditions. At each extreme, Primula auricula is a mountain specimen happy to grow individually in pots, while the Himalayan candelabra hybrids insist on moisture at all times.
  • Primroses and cowslips will spread without encouragement but not in the same place; primroses prefer moisture-retaining clay and cowslips thrive on leaner chalky soil.
  • Grow primroses and cowslips with spring bulbs under trees; all can be mowed in May.

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Above: A cowslip meadow, accompanied by the seedheads of plantains. Formerly a common sight all over the British Isles, primroses were once as abundant as buttercups, author Richard Mabey suggests. Sights like the one above are becoming slightly less rare thankfully, due to increased awareness of the logic of traditional land management, such as coppicing, hedge laying, and herbal leys. In the east of England cowslips teem up the slanted banks of that most unattractive of roads, the A14.

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Above: The jolliest flower. There is something about the daintiness, height, and seasonality of cowslips that makes them so appealing, in a similar way to daffodils. Yellow at its best.

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Above: As the acknowledged first flower, prima rosa is symbolic of new beginnings.

N.B.: See more ideas for woodland and shade gardens in Perennials 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design. For more of the loveliest primulas, see:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for primrose with our Primrose: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.

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