Wandering amongst wild primrose flowers growing in the open woods and along ancient hedgerows near the English farm where I live part of the year, I quite often feel like the “reckless libertine” referred to in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia warned her brother against dallying along the primrose path.
But gardeners can easily recreate this life of luxury by planting modern hybrids of those very plants. One of the earliest spring flowers in the colder parts of our country, Primulas - whose medieval name means “first rose” - bring exquisite color to winter-deprived gardens. Plus, its leaves and flowers are perfectly edible!
The herbaceous perennials form basal rosettes of oval leaves, topped with flowers which can be single, double, flattened, or somewhat bell-shaped, in a dazzling array of colors, often with contrasting eyes or edged tips. Some species have flowers in clusters on spikes; others have single flowers on short stems scattered throughout the plants. Most bloom in winter and spring, with others on into summer and later, varying enormously with species and location.
Great for Woodlands and Wet Areas
Primroses, staples of lightly shaded cottage gardens, are showy in pots, lining walks, bedded out in large areas, or naturalized in damp rock gardens, bogs, or edges of ponds and rain gardens.
Because primroses prefer cool temperatures, they are fairly easy to grow except in hot, humid areas - where somewhat-similar gerbera daisies and miniature agapanthus offer some solace. They prefer sun in the winter and spring with protection from hot summer sun, and fertile, moist soil amended with lots of compost or peat moss. You can create a bog garden for primroses and other moisture-loving plants by digging a sunken bed a foot or more deep and lining it with plastic before adding a mixture of dirt, coarse sand, compost and acidic peat moss.
Potted primroses can be grown indoors in filtered sun and moist soil, but they absolutely require cool night temperatures. Some folks go so far as to water theirs by letting ice cubes melt on top of the potting soil.
Other than the romantic version of yellow primroses and cowslips that grow wild throughout European woodlands and meadows, the Primulas most folk see nowadays are the colorful, compact supermarket varieties. Yet there are many other kinds of garden primroses.
Favorites for Starters
I’d start with some of the popular little Primula juliae and 'Wanda' hybrids, perhaps some of the compact “polyanthus” types which have larger flowers that to me look like African violets on steroids. These can even be grown as winter annuals in the Southwest and lower South, blooming before the onset of hot weather.
With countless thousands of cultivars, Bear's Ears (P. auricula) have flowers in such dazzling colors they often look unreal. As early as the 17th century the compact little plants were such a craze in England and Wales, even working-class miners and weavers - big burly men who displayed their favorites in “theatres” - small wooden frames with curtains and embellishments, which they carried on their backs to shows held in pubs.
Drumstick primrose (P. denticulata) tolerates a wide range of climates, producing lush mounds of large green leaves and upright stems each with a ball of fragrant, cut-quality flowers.
Later-blooming Japanese or “candelabra” primroses (P. japonica) have long lettuce-like leaves and tall flower stalks topped with tiered clusters of red, white, pink, yellow, magenta, purple and even variegated flowers.
To me, the most striking primrose is Vial’s primrose (P. vialii), a summer bloomer with tall, leafless spires topped with curious “spaceship” shaped lavender-purple and red flowers. Though short lived unless grown in boggy conditions, this stunning flowering plant will stop all visitors in their tracks
Grow Your Own
Primulas are quite tolerant of being transplanted, even when in bloom, so most gardeners simply buy whatever catches their eye in shops, flower shows, or gardens of friends. Divide mature plants in late winter, spring, or right after flowering, by simply digging entire plants, loosening the soil, and teasing individual plants apart.
Seeds are a bit trickier. They must be pre-chilled. Put them in the refrigerator in a plastic bag with some barely damp potting soil, or sow them in flats or pots with sterile seed mix and place them in an unheated garage or even outside in a protected place over the winter where they get a natural period of cold. After chilling they need light to germinate, so only barely cover them with sand or peat. Gently transplant well-formed seedlings into pots or directly into the garden.