Plants - Perennials

Planting primroses in your spring garden

Stephen Westcott-Gratton
Photography by
Millette Photomedia

One of the first to arrive at spring's pretty garden party, the humble Primula warrants VIP status.

I’ve always said that if I could only grow one genus, it would be spring-blooming Primula. Sentimental associations aside, primroses are a complex group of plants with more than 400 separate species (half of them native to the Himalayas), all of which are happy to cohabit together, and consequently have produced a staggering number of exquisite crosses and cultivars. But my all-time favourite is the simple common primrose (P. vulgaris), and despite the huge number of hybrids it has spawned, I still think its modest, demure flowers are the most beautiful.

I recommend starting off your primrose collection with species forms rather than complicated hybrids—some of the more common types, such as drumstick primroses or cowslips, are easy to cultivate, and will give you a good feel for the genus before you start shelling out for some of the more temperamental cultivars (e.g., double-flowered varieties). If you plant enough species forms together, you may even develop your own hybrid strain with a little assistance from the bees.

Species primroses aren’t readily available at nurseries, but are easy to grow from seed, and if you can germinate tomatoes, you’re in! Thompson & Morgan Canada supplies seed for all of the primroses mentioned here except 'Wanda' (which is propagated asexually), and provides good instructions for maximum germination.

The name “primrose” comes from the Latin primus, meaning “first,” due to the fact that in many areas, primroses are the first flowers to bloom in spring. Get your new gardening year off to a stellar start by adding some of these cheerful perennials to your existing flowerbeds.

Care checklist
  • Most primulas— except auriculas, which like lean, gritty soil—prefer freely draining soil rich in organic matter (leaf mould, compost, composted manure)
  • Site primulas near the front of the border or under shrubs (e.g., rhododendrons) in partly shaded conditions; some varieties tolerate full sun
  • Divide every three or four years in early spring (just as the foliage emerges) to maintain vigour
  • Poorly drained soil may cause leaf spot, grey mould and root or crown rot; add sand and/or grit to improve drainage
  • Slugs may damage foliage (mercifully, after flowering); control using organic methods or move plants to a drier, sunnier location

Cowslip (P. veris)
25 cm x 25 cm, Zone 3

Umbels of fragrant, nodding yellow flowers held above rosettes of semi-evergreen foliage.

Native from Ireland to eastern China (a 9,000-km range), long-lived cowslips prefer rich soil and bloom from late spring to early summer. Given sufficient moisture they will tolerate full sun; ‘Sunset Shades’ produces orange and red flowers. RHS AGM, 1993.

Common primrose (P. vulgaris syn. P. acaulis)
15 cm x 20 cm, Zone 4

Clusters of fragrant pale yellow flowers held above rosettes of semi-evergreen foliage.

The clay-tolerant, Eurasian common primrose has been popular since Elizabethan times, and has produced hundreds of mutations and hybrids. Difficult to find in nurseries, but easy to grow from seed. RHS AGM, 1998.

Vial's primrose (P. vialii), 20 cm x 15 cm, Zone 5
Dense spikes of up to 100 tubular violet-blue flowers held above rosettes of deciduous mid-green leaves.

Native to China and introduced by daredevil plant hunter George Forrest in 1906. Short-lived but easy to grow from seed, it blooms in early summer and prefers rich, well-drained soil. A distinctive form, unlike any other primula. RHS AGM, 1993.

Drumstick primrose (P. denticulata), 30 cm x 25 cm, Zone 2
Spherical umbels of lavender or white flowers with a yellow eye held on sturdy stems above deciduous rosettes of mid-green leaves.

Native from the Himalayas to China and introduced in 1838; hybridizing has led to pink, red and blue forms; one of the easiest (and hardiest) primroses to grow in average garden conditions. RHS AGM, 1993.

Gold-laced polyanthus (P. Gold-laced Group, Beeches Strain), 15 cm x 20 cm Zone 4
Striking umbels of dark mahogany-red flowers with a yellow eye and narrow golden margin held above rosettes of semi-evergreen foliage.

Unique, gold-laced hybrids have been cultivated since the 1750s; easy to grow in well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter. Divide every two years to maintain vigour. RHS AGM, 1997.

Crescendo Series polyanthus (P. Polyanthus Group [Crescendo Series]), 15 cm x 20 cm, Zone 5 (shown: 'Crescendo Blue Shades')
Large flowers (up to 5 cm) in solid shades of white, gold, pink, red and blue with a yellow eye held above rosettes of semi-evergreen foliage.

Of garden origin (from crosses involving P. elatior, P. veris and P. vulgaris) and widely available in late winter. After flowering, keep plants in a cool, bright window and transplant outdoors in spring. RHS AGM, 1997.

Alpine auricula (Primula auricula), 10 cm x 10 cm, Zone 3, (shown: Dale's Red)
Blooms in every shade imaginable, usually with a contrasting eye and often dusted with mealy white “farina” held above rosettes of evergreen foliage.

Native to the Alps and cultivated for more than 500 years, there are hundreds of hybrids. Fast-draining soil with plenty of grit is essential for success. Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit, 1993.

'Wanda' Juliana primrose (P. 'Wanda' syn. P. ×pruhonicensis 'Wanda'), 10 cm x 25 cm, Zone 3
Solitary clusters of dark burgundy to purple-red flowers are held above spreading, vigorous rosettes of semi-evergreen foliage.

P. juliae (native to the Caucasus and introduced in 1911) was crossed with P. vulgaris to produce this early-blooming cultivar that grows well in sun or shade in moist, organic soil. RHS AGM, 1993.


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