The primula, or primrose, meaning literally ‘first rose’, is the first flower of spring and one of our most popular garden plants. Classic springtime flowers, they add a pretty touch to gardens, with colours that range from the creamy soft to more richly vibrant hues.
There are 430 species of primulas found in a host of situations throughout the northern hemisphere. The key to growing them successfully is to identify their native habitat and to then try and replicate those conditions in your garden. Blooming often lasts throughout summer and in some areas, they will continue to delight in the autumn season.
While the yellow Primula vulgaris is the easiest to grow, the polyanthus-primula group provides a wealth of variety. A hybrid of cowslips, oxlips and more colourful primroses from other countries, it has a single stem supporting a cluster of primrose-shaped flowers. For early spring colour, try P. ‘Hall Barn Blue’, which produces flowers over many weeks, its violet-blue colour flattering early-flowering narcissi.
The showiest primulas are the exotic, summer-flowering bog varieties from Asia, known as candelabra primulas. Primula pulverulenta peaks in early June and can reach 90cm high. Its long-living large clumps can be divided in early spring; it also sets seeds.
Candelabra primulas are the most challenging to grow and are most likely to succeed if you have a bog garden and live in Britain’s wetter parts (Wales, Scotland or the Lake District). The orange-eyed, pastel-pink P. pulverulenta ‘Bartley hybrids’ is a soft contrast to more brightly coloured bog primulas.
Alpine primulas flower in late spring and early summer and most need good drainage followed by damp conditions as they flower, emulating the snow-melt of alpine meadows. P. denticulata can survive in open conditions as long as they do not dry out during flowering.
Winter wetness will kill alpine primulas, so add lots of grit when planting. Specialist alpine primulas are suitable only for growing in an alpine house, scree bed or pot culture under cool cover.
The drumstick primula varies in shade from white to purple, lilac and carmine-pink. The clean-white closely packed flowers of this Primula denticulata var. alba have warm yellow eyes, while the plant itself can grow up to 30cm high.
The Beth Chatto Gardens, 01206 822007
Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, 01256 896533
Long Acre Plants, 01963 32802
Longstock Park Water Garden, 01264 810904
Marwood Hill Gardens, 01271 342528
Upton House, 01295 670266