Here’s the scene. A few weeks ago I’m in a garden center that reminds me of Frank’s. That was a regional chain of garden centers that folded at least 20 years ago, but while they were in business it was an OK place to buy a wide range of gardening products and live plants. I’m in the greenhouse area that has early annuals, vegetables and small potted perennials. Two white-haired matrons pass me arm in arm and one of the women, who obviously is a horticulture expert, is teaching her less knowledgeable friend. “Dear,” she says, “one important thing that you have to remember if you want to succeed at this is that perennials are for the spring and annuals are for the summer.”I wanted to stop them dead in their tracks, sit them down and give them a free gardening class, but my wife and I just walked by, looked at each other and giggled. The lady offering the instruction did have some sense in her nonsense. There are plenty of perennials that do their thing in the spring, but we often pass on them as the gardening season progresses and they fade into the season.
There’s one primarily spring perennial that has caught my attention in recent years, and they’ve become one of my newest fixations. These are the primulas, which these grandmothers might know only as primroses and cowslip. In fact, there are more than 400 species, mostly alpine in nature. It’s a large plant family, with plants flowering from early spring right into early summer with just about every color covered. Depending on the variety, the flowers can be flat, round, conical, tiered, atop tall(ish) stems or tight to the plant. Some are easy, but others can be quite challenging and if you learn to grow them from seed they can be very inexpensive. Many will naturalize, and some have flowers whose colors will perk up the blandest landscape with a brilliant display.
My first primula was a simple Primula vulgaris that I found in a garden in Virgina about 20 years ago. There was just something about the bright egg-yolk yellow flowers that caught my eye and I couldn’t help myself, so I “borrowed” a side slip of one plant. That plant is now the proud parent to some 10 or so other generations and divisions that now stretch 30 feet along the edge of one of my borders. But as you know I’m an addict and I had to have more.
My next primula adventure was when I was visiting a property in Bedford in Westchester. The front of the large house had a number of landscape beds, and one was in an area that was lightly shaded but remained moist because it was at the edge of a wetland. The entire perimeter of this border had a naturalized planting of red-flowering primulas on tall stalks that were simply breathtaking, and I was told that only a few had been planted and the rest of them were the result of self-seeding. Spectacular.
I learned that this primrose was Primula japonica or the fairy primrose, and I lucked out when I found a few at a Southampton garden center the following spring. All I remember about this one was that I was taken with the color of the flowers on the one at the garden center, as it was a striking ruby red, a very unusual color for the early garden, flowering at about 12 to 15 inches above the foliage. I snagged three (I always buy three) and planted them behind my yellow Virginia P. vulgaris. When the flowers set seed, I collected all the seed and two weeks later sowed them in several cedar flats. By late summer I had hundreds of plants and now, five years later … well you’d really have to see it, but what a display.
The one issue that I had with these japonicas was that someone was hell bent on pulling out every one I planted. None were eaten, but they were all pulled out of the ground. Not sure who the culprit was, but my two top suspects were rabbits and chipmunks. Since I had plenty of backup plants I simply replanted, then covered the planted area with deer mesh until the plants were well rooted. They’ve been fine ever since.
I’ve since planted a small area of Primula cashmeriana, which will flower out here in mid-April with ruby-colored, ball-shaped flower heads about 2 inches in diameter about 6 inches above the plants. Yes, I only bought three, and of course when I went back online to buy more, none were to be found and now I want dozens. It looks like the three I have can be divided into at least a dozen plants, and I’ll certainly collect seed for more. Dividing the plants is incredibly easy and can be done once seed is collected.
Most of the primulas are easy to divide by simply taking a sharp knife with a long blade and separating the side shoots from the parent in the center. The side shoots can be dug with roots, then transplanted immediately to their new locations. This is best done on a cloudy day, better on a rainy or misty day. Then just water the plants several times a week for about three weeks and you’re done. Simple enough?
Working with primula seed can be a bit more difficult, but much more productive. It’s pretty obvious when the seed pods are ripe (brown and crisp), and you need to get them before they drop seed. The seed can be grainy to very fine, depending on the variety, and it should be sown within a few weeks of harvesting. The second method is to sow the seed in flats outdoors in October or November, and cover the flats with screen to keep curious rodents out. The flats, which remain outdoors, will germinate in their own good time, in the spring. Usually.
But of course I couldn’t stop there, and my next addition, which was last spring, was primula “Dark Rosaleen.” This is a wonderful short primula only a few inches tall with a round habit and foliage, with flowers set among the foliage in a tight fashion. The flowers’ colors have been referred to as an antique burgundy striped with pink, but I see the stripe as more yellow. It’s another early primula that looks great in a group of a dozen or more, but of course I have only three. Even worse, I can’t find more in the U.S. so to make my three a dozen … well, you know the drill. All I know is that the plant was developed in Ireland in the 1980s.
My most recent primula adventure started out quite by accident when a photographer was showing off pictures he’d taken with his new digital camera. He’d posted on a site called “DP Review,” and one of his pictures was of a primula—and it was pretty remarkable. I was able to get in touch with him, and he told me the plant was at the botanical garden in Vancouver, B.C. The detective in me went to work, and with his picture I was able to determine that the flower was from a primula in the “gold laced” group. This particular one was primula “Gold Laced Black” and yes, I wanted it. I bought some seed from Ireland, but had no luck with it, then last winter I found a nursery growing it in the Midwest. They arrive momentarily. This time I bought more than three. Turns out the nursery that originally grew them in Europe was bombed in 1938 and they are only now coming back on the market.
Want to know more about growing primulas in your garden? Drop me a note and I’ll get you some “starter” information and seed/plant sources. Keep growing.