The humble primrose is probably one of the most welcome sights on a springtime walk. Like the daffodil, the bright abundance of flowers of the primrose signals the end of the cold, damp winter. It hints at the possibility of warmer, happier times, playing outside with friends and family.
Little do most gardening mortals realise, but the name primrose refers to many plants. You might be surprised to find that some flowers you have always thought of as primroses are a different plant completely. Primrose refers to the Primula family of flowers. Primula comes from the Latin for first to bloom in spring. The most commonly grown plants in the Primula family include polyanthus, Japanese primroses, auriculas and giant cowslip.
In our Primrose Growing Guide, we are going to focus our attention on the common primrose, whose Latin name is Primula vulgaris. This is the native British primrose that you often find growing in hedgerows in the wild but will also thrive in any garden. They have a slight preference for well-drained soil – but will enjoy growing in clay, chalk, and loam soils. They tend to grow well almost anywhere and so are perfect for any garden - and gardener whose fingers might not be tinged as green as they should. It is an excellent flower for children to begin gardening with.
You can grow from a seed from autumn onwards where they will lay dormant in the cold months. With the warmer weather of spring, you will spot them almost literally leaping into life. These flowers are vigorous growers and will seem to appear out of nowhere overnight. They will certainly be a welcome addition to your mini polytunnel!
Be aware that there are more than 400 species of flowers considered to primroses, which may come in a variety of colours.
There are few flowers loved more than the humble primrose. It is a hardy little native wildflower that we have chosen to adopt in our gardens. When walking in later winter in local woodland, it is likely the primrose that will bring you to a smile. It signals the cold and damp of February will soon turn to something warmer. They will be speckled amongst the trees, likely clinging resiliently to a slope. Not only will you enjoy the bright yellow of the flowers, but they give off a powerful perfume too.
If you want to see them in full splendour, you should travel to Ireland and take a walk. Primroses love the damp ditches of the Irish countryside – and can blanket the hedgerows.
What you might not have noticed is that the primrose produces two different flowers, although quite subtly different. One of the flowers is called the thrum-eyed and the other the pin-eyed. This difference between flowers means that when the bees visit – as well as moths and other insects – there is a better chance for cross-pollination. Nature is a beautiful thing! The cross-pollination is the cause of the many varieties of primroses that come in the full spectrum of colour. Although the traditional primrose is yellow, there are varieties now in red, purple, orange, white and pink. If you are keen to find out more about the hand pollination of primroses to create new varieties, then you should check out the famous nursery Barnhaven Primroses. Unlike those you would find in the wild, these cross-pollinated plants tend to take a little more looking after, though they are still resilient.
It is worth knowing that primroses are also edible! They can be a decorative element to your cakes and other sweet dishes. Add a dusting of caster sugar – and these crystallised primrose flowers are just the most amazing decorations. Primrose leaves are also edible and another addition to your salad. Some people also use the leaves as a garnish on soup.
If you forage too much among your primroses, they will soon die away – so judge well how much you pick the flowers and leaves if you want them to return. If you do leave them to grow unfettered, then you be glad of the visits by the early foraging bees and other pollinators.
When you are planting primroses, it is best to plant them beneath trees, specifically deciduous trees. They will also enjoy the shade offered by taller shrubs or along your garden hedge. These are compact perennials, so the spread is limited to the immediate planting area. This means that primroses are also an excellent addition to window-boxes or as companion planting in your garden pots – accompanied by roses or other taller plants. The primrose will combine well with other flowers planted in your hanging basket – working well alongside violas, dwarf narcissi and hellebores. This group of flowers will give you a beautiful display in spring to delight your neighbours.
You would sow the seed in late autumn for the best show in spring. Some people suggest waiting to plant the seeds in late winter. The seed will remain dormant in the colder months; therefore, there is little difference in this advice when viewed pragmatically.
Most seed packs will advise you to plant somewhere between January to March. You should put the seed into the seed-starting mix and sow within 14inches of the top of the pot. Keep the seeds sparse and make sure to put the pots outside but not exposed to the harshest weathers. You will find that once the seeds are planted, they will need little care until planting in the beds, borders, boxes and baskets in March and April.
In the first spring, the flowers will be modest. However, the following year will be much stronger, and they will not reach full maturity until five years have gone by.
You can propagate primroses from seed and by root basal cuttings. You would plant the seeds/ roots in the autumn for the flowers to emerge in the following spring. When planting the young plants, make sure that you mulch in some chopped leaves and water the plants well. They will thrive best in areas of shade and areas that are sheltered from the worst of frosts.
You can also cultivate them from flowers bought at the nursery and planted in early spring. You would plant them in a flower border or beds, on a low maintenance bank or slope, or as part of a wildflower meadow.
You should divide primroses in late spring to spread the blooms across an ample space of the garden.
You may feel some temptation to dig up and remove primroses from the wild. Resist this at all costs, as they are inexpensive to buy, and everyone deserves to experience the beauty of the flowers out in the wild.
Be aware that primroses are prone to attacks by aphids, slugs, vine weevil, bud eelworms, glasshouse red spider mites and leaf-mining flies. They can also suffer from leaf spot and grey moulds.
With our changeable climate, it is difficult to guarantee the bloom of primrose and its continued flowering. Warmer spells in February followed by snow, and harsh frosts in March can create real problems for those looking to cultivate a good batch of primroses. By using a polytunnel, not only can you guarantee an intense bloom, but you can also extend this bloom further into spring.
The sloped sides of the polytunnel will deflect wind upwards and away from the plants. This means the primrose will better cope with the harsher north-easterly winds that can sometimes strike the UK in the mid to late spring. The high-quality reinforced plastic also prevents warmer than the average sun from scorching your plants – helping you to maintain a temperature that will elongate the flowering season. It will also help you avoid infestation by many of the bugs and slugs that want to chomp down on your primroses.
The primrose is a contained little flower. It will not spread, and therefore, there is no reason to cut back the flowers. You may wish to deadhead the flowers when coming to the end of the season, to allow the leaves and shrubs to decorate your garden instead.
The humble primrose is a national treasure. It may grow wild across most of western and southern Europe, thriving best in the boggy lands of Ireland, but it is the flower of the English country garden. Although the common primrose covered here will flower a dainty yellow, cross cultivation methods mean that the world of the primrose has exploded in rainbow variety.
The primrose provokes a strange passion for some gardeners. It might be time you tried to grow a few and see if you can be captured by the love affair too.