Spring flowers: Pick the primrose path

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Wed., May. 1, 2013
- Contributed Photo

After a long, drab-colored winter, spring flowers are now in full bloom. Glorious golden daffodils, vibrant coral quinces, purple PJM’s and my favorite spring flower, primroses. I love them for their vivid colors, long blooming periods, and well-behaved growth habits.

Their name, primrose, is said to be derived either from, the Old French, primerose, or Medieval Latin, prima rosa, in both cases translating into ‘first rose’. April 19 is Primrose Day and it marks the anniversary of the death of Benjamin Disraeli, the British statesman and prime minister. Apparently his love of this flower was so well known that Queen Victoria sent a wreath of primroses to his funeral.

Primroses produce low, ground-hugging rosettes of foliage from which the stalks bearing singles, umbels, or whorls of delightfully colored flowers arise. Over 400 species are known. Many species are hardy to zone 5, with some being able to survive under zone 3 conditions as well.

The most common primrose found in many of our gardens is Primula x polyantha. The parents of these vibrantly colored hybrids are the common cowslip (P. veris), the English primrose (P. vulgaris) and the Julian primrose (P. juliae). The flowers were bred for increased size and the plants for compactness. They are sold both as potted plants and for planting out in the garden. In fact, if you receive a potted primrose as a gift, plant it in a partially-shaded bed and see what happens.

Flowers may be solid color, bi-colored, or have a pronounced eye and are often more than an inch in diameter. They are produced on 4- to 6- inch stems in umbels. Typically plants are a foot tall or less.

The original English primrose has lovely yellow flowers, quite like the color of sulfur, with a darker yellow splotch near the eye. Flowers are borne singly. It is one of the easiest primroses to grow. I have a white cultivar, ‘Dawn Ansell’ which is a double white and has survived both the heavy snow cover of two winters ago as well as this past year’s on again-off again winter and is producing flower buds right now. Just as an aside, P. vulgaris is used to make primrose wine.

Another interesting primrose, that I grew from seed and that lived for 5 years or so before the voles decimated it, was the drumstick primrose (P. denticulata). The oval leaves are toothed and usually 4 to 6 inches long. Flowers arise on thin stems and look like globes of pink, white, rose, lavender or purple. The top of the flowers may reach up to a foot in height.

The key to growing almost any species of primrose is finding the right conditions for them to flourish. Most primroses thrive in a slightly, to moderately acid soil (pH 5 to 6) with plenty of organic matter in a partially shaded location. They do appreciate a moderate amount of fertility so new beds could be fortified with a half-inch or inch of manure-based compost. If using leaf mold or peat moss, be sure to also incorporate fertilizer, either as recommended by a soil test, or as directed on the package. Moisture during dry summer periods is most critical to primroses. While they would prefer some protection, like evergreen boughs, during open winters, the availability of summer moisture is most essential to their survival. Plan on supplementing their water needs, if natural rainfall comes up short. Primroses, in general, are not quick to multiply but may need division every three to four years if kept happy.

For questions on growing primroses, or on other topics, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center toll free at 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center.

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