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Cornucopia - In praise of the primrose

In praise of the Primrose
Barbara Matthewman

The name ‘primrose’ is said to mean the first flower of spring and it certainly means that to me (even if some of my primroses start flowering in November). By primrose I mean plants from the vernales section of primulas, i.e. the European primrose, which includes our native Primula vulgaris as well as P. juliae and their hybrids. If there is a primrose version of the galanthophile, then I am one of them. I can’t resist a good primrose.

Unfortunately, when one says primula these days, most people think of the large-flowered plants sold by the trayful for spring colour and used pretty much as an annual. Many have extremely good colours and markings and are anything but annual, but for me the often outsized flowers lack refinement. I prefer flowers closer in size to P. vulgaris and juliae.

P. vulgaris can be promiscuous, picking up colours where it can. In my garden I have self-sown seedlings in the original primrose as well as white through to dark red with numerous pinks in between. The same probably applies to P. juliae, which crossed (or has been crossed) with other vernales primulas to produce the so-called juliana hybrids. These form the bulk of named primrose types, including P. 'Wanda'.

Even within this narrow group there is a range of flower size, habit and leaf colour. 'Garryarde Guinevere' and 'Dark Rosaleen' have purple-tinged leaves, while 'Osiered Amber' has bronze. The flowers of 'Wanda' and its cousin 'Blue Riband' have almost no stem. The stem on 'Ruby Port' is over an inch long, while 'Guinevere' and 'Dark Rosaleen' resemble cowslips. Flowers vary from half an inch ('Dark Rosaleen') to an inch ('Wanda' and cousins) in size. There are also hose-in-hose and double varieties. As for colours, I would not know where to start, but there must be one to suit every taste. My collection includes a delicate pink juliana type seedling, mauve ('Groenekan’s Glorie'), a 'Garryade' type red seedling, and 'Tomato Red' to name a few, as well as primroses with barred petals, such as 'Kinlough Beauty', or laced edges.

Primroses originally come from hedgerows, banks and light deciduous woodland. Received wisdom tells us not to grow them in full sun. My most successful patch of 'Wanda' and a large and expanding patch of P. vulgaris seedlings are in full sun on the rockery. They also flourish tucked in at the base of stones and shrubs and in shady places in the border – altogether a very accommodating plant that surely has a place in every garden.

First published in the South Pennine Group Newsletter, Spring 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 31.
© Copyright for this article: Barbara Matthewman

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2013. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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