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Plant of the Month: May 2016

Primula sieboldii ‘Winter dreams’

May is one of my favourite times in the garden. The early contrast of dark soil against showy bulbs has almost gone, and a mist of fresh, lush green is advancing like a tide. There are shadowy hints of things to come, with clumps burgeoning in size overnight and thrusting buds where none had been before. And in the vanguard, the small, knobbly humps of Primula sieboldii rise up, ugly ducklings returning to swan-hood. Forgotten till now, these demure little maidens open their blooms, wide-eyed in the shade.

I grew mine from Barnhaven seed some years ago, in a pure white strain that included both ‘smooth’ and ‘snowflake’ flower forms (though I believe these are now available as separate strains). At the time, the ‘smooth’ forms seemed maybe sturdier but somehow less exotic, while the ‘snowflakes’ were so magically perfect, they looked like something out of a story. Of course, other colours are available – sharp pink and magenta, some with contrasting reverses, shell pink, lilac mauve and lavender blue are all possible and growing from seed means you can have a generous display at a reasonable cost. (I love Bob Brown’s tongue-in-cheek aside – ‘Drift planting – so good for cash flow.’) Barnhaven suggest that seeds are best kept cold and sown early. As with all primula seedlings, remember that one morning’s heat can crispy-fry a whole batch, so keep them out of direct sunlight. Pricking out is best done when there are at least 4 leaves, as seedlings can be tiny.

From wet river sides in Japan, Korea and Manchuria (presumably not struggling against coarse grasses, which they abominate), you can understand their apparent need for a soil that never totally dries out. Light woodland is good, but make sure it isn’t that planting Black Hole, ‘dry shade under trees’. The losses I’ve experienced have been through summer drought, though to be fair, other members of Western Counties manage to grow them in far drier conditions than I can offer. Once you have them established, propagation by division becomes easy, as creeping rhizomes spread gently underground. Do mark them, as it’s easy to forget they’re there when dormant.

In my garden, they’ve always been part of a particular band of plants that look well together, centred around aquilegias. Sadly, the majority of the aquilegias now show the pale, sickly look of Aquilegia downy mildew. Do check yours over, if you haven’t already and dig out and burn the victims. Look at National collection holder Carrie Thomas’ website for identification details (

So, what can replace the aquilegias as planting companions? The blues and whites of Geranium sylvaticum are good, as is lavender-pink cow parsley, Chaerophyllum hirsutum 'roseum', perhaps with some solid plummy heucheras. The smouldering copper of Euphorbia 'Dixter' works well with navy Camassia liechlinii ssp suksdorfii, fronted by the paler pink dodecatheons. Euphorbia palustris is handsome just now, as is delicate blue Geranium libanii, and maybe try Pacific coast irises for a vertical accent.

In ‘The damp garden’, Beth Chatto talks of ‘Fragile-looking flowers floating above spreading clumps of small, clustered leaves in Spring, in pale shades of pink, lilac and white, several on each dainty, branching head.’ Who could resist?

Gill Mullin

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