The primroses in my garden are putting on a show right now. Among the first flowers to bloom, the different varieties keep the color coming in waves until the summer flowers take over. There is nothing demure about these rugged little plants, they light up the landscape with carnival bright colors like egg yolk yellow, royal blue, magenta, and bright crimson.
These plants came from one I bought at the grocery store years ago. They blossom reliably every spring and have spread to form a nice patch.
Many of my plants are survivors from the pots of primrose I pick up at the grocery store in January and February, hoping to add some color to a drab winter day. With a minimum amount of care, they bloom on the windowsill right up to April when I move them outside as soon as the ground is workable. I’ve lost a few over the years but others have thrived and spread to form mats of color in our shady border.
Since there are over 500 species of primrose in the genus Primula, knowing the origin of your plant will help you to give it the kind of site it needs to thrive. Some are mountain dwellers, some love water, and others need a woodland setting. Hybridizers have developed thousands of crosses from these species plants, giving us a multitude of primroses to choose from. Woodland primroses from Europe and Asia and the bog-lovers from Japan are the best suited for my New Hampshire garden. Here are a few recommended by the American Primrose Society:
Though most Primula veris are yellow, I have this one called Sunset Shades that came from a plant swap.
Primula veris is the English cowslip. It has umbrella-shaped clusters of small, deep yellow, fragrant flowers on 6-10 inch tall stalks. It can tolerate drier conditions than most primroses.
Primula elatior is another English one; the Brits call it oxlip. It is taller than the cowslip and bears its showy, pale yellow flowers in loose clusters. Hardy to zone 4 it blooms very early and likes moist soil.
These names have nothing to do with the lips of cattle but come from the old English word slop which means dung! It refers to the way these flowers grew wild in wet meadows or even in an old cowpie!
Primula vulgaris is also native to Europe and has 10-12 inch tall stems topped with a cluster of single, soft yellow flowers. It has many hybrid forms that come in a wide range of bright colors, most with a yellow eye. Hardy to zone 5. it needs afternoon shade, especially in the hottest days of summer and will need watering during droughts.
Primula sieboldii hails from Japan and bears clusters of lacy, star-like flowers in white, pink, lilac or red, often with a white center on 9 inch stems. Hardy to zone 4 it grows along riverbanks in its natural location and spreads by creeping rhizomes which can be easily split from the original plant. If left alone, it will naturalize well. To survive hot climates it goes dormant in August, disappearing until cooler fall weather arrives.
A friend gave me denticulata seeds which grew several colors of drumstick primroses. The whites and purples seem to do the best for me but the pink ones have disappeared.
Primula denticulata is called the drumstick primrose for its ball of flowers atop a 10 inch stem. Native to wet alpine meadows of the Himalayas, it is the earliest to bloom in my garden. It comes in a wide range of colors from lavender and rose to magenta and white. Hardy to zone 3 this is one of the easiest primroses to grow.
Primula kisoana is an Asian species that has wide, fuzzy lobed leaves and small clusters of red, pink, or white flowers. It thrives in part shade and moist soil and is hardy to zone 2. It spreads by underground runners that are easily divided.
Primula japonica is a moisture-loving Japanese primrose that flourishes in wet spots where other plant would drown. It blooms in May, bearing an exotic 5 or 6 tiered candelabra of flowers in white, red, purple, or pink that can reach 2 feet tall. Some look like they have been dusted with silver, covered with a glittery substance called farina. Hardy to zone 4 it readily seeds itself to form large stands.
Gold Laced primrose looks rare but can be grown from seed.
Primula polyanthus are the hybrid primroses developed from the other species. They have the widest color variations including bi-colors, stripes, and contrasting edges. Vibrant and velvety, they add pools of color to a shady garden. Some even look like miniature roses.
Antique Hose-in-Hose variety.
One of the interesting antique primulas is a polyanthus mutation called “hose-hose”. Popular in Elizabethan England, its name refers to the way gentlemen of the royal court wore 2 pairs of stockings at once, the outer pair rolled down to reveal the inner pair. The flower of hose-in-hose has one long-necked single blossom arising from the throat of another blossom. It is called a double flower but really is 2 singles stacked together.
Most primroses do best in fast draining, moist, slightly acidic soil. Don’t bury the crown or they will rot. They are not heavy feeders and too much nitrogen will promote leaf growth instead of flowers. They do best if given morning sun and shade during the hottest part of the day. Mine do well planted under deciduous trees where they get lots of early spring sunshine and shade in the summer. Bog-loving varieties need plenty of water. Primulas are shallow rooted so abrupt changes in temperature may harm them. Mulching evens out the temperature swings and also retains moisture. They combine well with other spring bloomers like daffodils, forget-me-nots, and bleeding hearts.