How to grow primroses

By Val Bourne, Thursday 15 March 2012

These shade-loving blooms, beloved of bees, epitomise spring
'You and Me' yellow hose in hose'You and Me' yellow hose in hose

Primroses are part of the primula tribe and they are plants for woodland edges and shady banks. They flower in spring and are not to be confused with alpines and moisture-loving bog primulas, which are much more demanding.  The most common form, Primula vulgaris, is the pallid-yellow flower found growing on shady banks and under hedgerows tucked away from hot summer sun. This evergreen British native spreads by seeds that are often dispersed by ants, and it can still be found across Britain. However Oliver Rackham observes that recent hot, dry East Anglian summers have seen it decline sharply in that area.

A plant for the bees

The primrose is an excellent bee plant and it uses a clever device. Some flowers are pin-eyed (with a prominent style) and others are thrum-eyed - showing a head of long stamens. The differences ensure that pollen is picked up from the stamens and distributed on the style as the bee travels from one to another. This arrangement ensures lots of genetic diversity because the short-stamened flowers tend to be self-fertile whilst the long-stamened flowers normally need an insect in order to set seeds. Named primroses in unusual colours and flower forms have been grown in gardens for hundreds of years.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) first presented the structural differences of primroses (described as a dimorphic condition) to the Linnean Society on November 21st 1862. He had spent many hours breeding and hybridising primroses. These dimorphic differences made the flowers look different, something that country children had known for centuries as they threaded them together to make garlands.  Countless children, including me, dissected and drew them in Biology lessons - thanks to Darwin.

The primrose epitomises spring and their name ‘prima rosa’ is derived from first rose of the year - primarole. The fresh-faced flowers quickly became associated with young girls in their first flowering and Chaucer’s wife in ‘The Miller’s Tale’ (circa 1380)  was a primerole “blisful on to see”. Shakespeare saw the flower rather differently however and he talks about the primrose path of dalliance - somewhere that led to sinful pleasures. This is because the leaves become large and unsightly as the year wears on, losing their innocence. 

Primroses have been popular garden plants for centuries and Elizabethan gardeners collected lots of different types, probably discovered in wild populations.  ‘Hose in Hose’ have two flowers, one set inside the other, and they take their name from Tudor gentlemen who donned two pairs of hose under their doublets in winter. It’s still possible to find old primroses in nurseries sometimes and I am always searching. Whenever I’m confronted with lots of seed-raised primroses or polyanthas (the ones with a stem topped by lots of flowers in a cluster) in a garden centre I always look carefully for any aberrations - or differences.

Hose in Hose varieties have been bred in Eastern Europe in recent years and Thompson & Morgan are selling seeds of ‘You and Me’.  Another larger-flowered modern American series of interest is ‘Primlet’ and these are in garden centres. The latter are not strictly hose in hose - more rosebud in form.  However the modern tendency for enormous flowers can look out of scale with miniature bulbs and woodlanders.

Jack in the Green

Another Elizabethan speciality had a ruff of green leaves right beneath the flower - rather like the starched ruff between doublet and beard.  These were called ‘Jack in the Green’ or ‘Jack in the Pulpit’. The best modern example of this type is the cream-white ‘Dawn Ansell’ bred by Doctor Cecil Jones of Llanelli - the most prominent British hybridiser. I also have a pink ‘in-the-green’ bought from Long Acre Plants www.plantsforshade.co.uk. This nursery is a good source of accurately named primroses and Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers www.cgf.net also has many with simply shaped flowers.  Some of his modern varieties, like the almost brown ‘Sparkling Eyes’, were bred by Joe Kennedy in Ireland in the 1990s. He is still producing new primroses and there are new ones lined up for this year.

Doubles

Doubles were also highly popular and some think that the loose lilac flowers of Primula vulgaris ‘Lilacena Plena’ (syn, ‘Quaker’s Bonnet’) may have been around for hundreds of years. It is certainly a doughty gardener performer. Doubles have become more readily available in recent years due to micropropagation. The pale-primrose ‘Val Horncastle’ and the bright-yellow ‘Sunshine Suzie’ are both excellent.  ‘Miss Indigo’ is a deep-blue with a frosted edge and ‘Captain Blood’ is a deep red.  All four were raised as Barnhaven seedlings by Florence Bellis in America over fifity years ago. She started hybridising using seeds sent by Captain Comely Hawkes of Nantwich in Cheshire and by 1949 she had seven seed strains segregated by colour.

The Cowichan strain

Florence also raised the Cowichan strain named after the Cowichan Valley in Canada. It arose from one unusual red-flowered plant found in the garden of Mr Neel in 1931 close to the railway station at Cowichan. He had been importing seeds from England for many years.  Apparently, when the plants began to be sold commercially it engendered a lot of ill feeling in Cowichan because several people claimed the plant as their own.  But by the 1960s the strain was world famous for the intensity of colour. Although Florence Bellis retired in 1966, her plants continued to be developed. Barnhaven Seeds are still being sold in France www.barnhavenprimroses.com.

I grow deep-blue Cowichans to follow on from my snowdrops and they have long, dark-tipped leaves. They came through last year’s cold winter probably due to their Canadian roots, but they need regular division to do well. A bright-red strain has been used in the Red Border at Hidcote over the years, along with red tulips, a planting scheme designed by Graham Stuart Thomas well over forty years ago.

Another famous primrose arose close to Cowichan Valley - ‘Francisca’. This bears jade-green, ragged-edged flowers zoned in yellow. Although it looks highly bred, with its flounces and frills, it was actually spotted on a traffic island in Surrey, British Columbia, by a Canadian gardener called  Francisca Darts about fifteen tears ago.  Surrey, known as the 'City of Parks', has a cool maritime climate similar to many parts of Britain, so primroses grow well there. Perhaps it was a woodland primrose that had hybridised with a showy bedding primula. We shall never know. However, 'Francisca’ seems to have hybrid vigour. It flowers far longer than most primroses. But like many, it extends its leaves in summer to keep out weeds and conserve moisture, so it needs its own space.

Primula 'Elizabeth Killelay' - a double gold-laced maroon from Cotswold Garden FlowersGarden centres are also awash with Gold-laced primulas and there’s a lot of variety between these cowslip-like plants etched in black. These were florists' flowers during the mid-eighteenth century, exhibited by the potful at horticultural shows.  But they reached the pinnacle of popularity in the late nineteenth century, especially around Rochdale and Halifax. These long-lived plants are very suited to the cooler conditions found in Northern England. However perennial primroses deserve a place in any garden.

Propagate and plant

  • Primroses and polyanthus like cooler positions with some shade to emulate their woodland edge position in nature.
  • They need moist, well-drained, friable soil – most losses are due to drought. Add organic matter and leaf litter when planting and mulch yearly.
  • Divide every two to three years, or plants develop fleshy stems that open up at the base, making them brittle and vulnerable to vine weevil.
  • Divide clumps, pulling apart good-sized pieces by hand – they will already have roots. Early autumn is an ideal time, but you can also do it after flowering as long as you water until autumn.

Beware peaty compost

  • Nursery-produced plants are often grown under cover in peaty compost so they do not transfer to the garden well. Keep them watered during their first growing season if you plant them out.
  • Alternatively, keep them in the pot until they finish flowering and then knock them out, looking for vine weevil as you go. Split them up and re-pot small sections into gritty compost.
  • Plant them out in September somewhere cool and semi-shaded. Hedge bottoms and areas under deciduous trees are excellent. Avoid areas that dry out in summer sun.



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