Earlier this week I entered Foster’s Market and the first thing I saw was a bank of primroses. I could not have been happier. Many years ago I bought a pot of Foster’s primroses and after the blossoms had gone by I saved the plant until spring tip toed in. I planted it at the edge of a wooded spot in our Heath backyard. I didn’t do much in the way of preparation, just digging with a trowel and adding a couple of handfuls of compost. The primroses did increase with no help from me and were still blooming last spring. Those pale primroses were not my last. I bought more primroses at Fosters, adding richer and more brilliant red, and purple varieties.
Of course, having seen the new array I had to buy four pots (two pots for $7) in shades of primrose cream, yellow and gold. They made a lovely centerpiece on the dining table for a luncheon with friends. There are over 500 species of primula, but I believe the species on my table is P. vulgaris, sometimes called the English primrose. They will also go into the garden when the time comes.
Another primrose for the wild garden is P. veris. The flowers are very similar to the English primrose but they form pendulous clusters on slightly taller stems, up to 10 or 12 inches. This is the primrose that is referred to as cowslips in Shakespeare’s plays like The Tempest. Ariel sings his song, “Where the bee sucks, there suck I. In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”
Over the years I have admired other primroses. I visited a friend one wet spring and she showed me the pale pink Japanese primroses growing in a shallow stream. Most P. japonica primroses bloom in shades of pink and white. These are a candelabra type with tiers of blossoms held high on a stem that can be two feet tall. They obviously like water and reseed freely making a lovely wild planting in the shade. This seems like a perfect plant for my very wet Greenfield garden.
While the P. japonica have a candelabra form, there are other types in this large candelabra family. P. bulleyana is tall with apricot/orange blooms bringing color later in the season. It also likes the wet and will naturalize quickly. P. beesiana is another candelabra variety, about two feet tall, with pinky/purple blossoms blooming from spring into summer. These primroses, like most that have enough of a stem, are good cutting flowers for bouquets.
Primula tommasinii You and Me Blue is a very unusual primrose that has a double blossom, but it does not have double the number of petals, it has a second blossom growing up from the first blossom on an 8 to 12 inch stem. It is called a hose-in-hose flower named after a type of hose that men wore in the 1500s. Blue is an unusual color in primroses, so this is a fascinating flower on at least two levels.
Many primulas are hardy to zone 5 and are not difficult to grow given rich soil, moisture and some shade. But there are other varieties that have very different requirements.
The auriculas are a group of primroses that are ideal for a partly shady spot with neutral or slightly alkaline soil. They are alpine plants and do well in a rock garden that can be top dressed with fine gravel. Auriculas have a more dramatic form comprised of richly colored petals surrounding a white or pale center. Most also have a pale coating that is called ‘farina’ and is considered desirable, especially if you are entering your auricula in a flower show. Unlike the candelabra primroses they do not come true from seed, nor do they reseed themselves as freely.
I never attempted to divide my primroses, leaving them to their own devices, and gave them no attention after planting. They did increase in size, but not to the extent that is possible.
Dividing primroses can be done after blooming after deadheading, or in the early fall. A clump can be dug up and the corms can be seen and pulled apart gently. The new planting spot should be enriched with rotted manure or good compost. Then the leaves can be cut back to three inches, as well as the roots. Cutting back in this way will encourage the division to make new strong roots without needing to feed lush foliage. They can be fertilized again after replanting with non-nitrogen fertilizers. We want to concentrate on building new roots, not new foliage.
Aside from Foster’s Market which sells primroses for a brief period I don’t know where you can buy plants locally. Portland Nursery and Garden Center in Portland, Washington sells a selection of primula varieties (www.portlandnursery.com, and I did find Primula tomasinii You and Me Blue at Bluestone Perennials (www.bluestoneperennials.com) among their selection of single and frilly double primulas.
I don’t often see primroses in gardens so I am especially looking forward to having my own bank of P. japonica, luxuriating in my wet garden. Even though I am now living in town I am trying to create a woodland garden, a garden unlike my sunny hill garden. This woodland garden will be a response to my very different site, to my desire for more native plants that will support birds and pollinators, and (I hope) it will be less labor intensive.
Between the Rows January 23, 2016