Primulas are called primulas from the word ‘prime’ meaning ‘first’ and they are among the earliest of spring flowers. Of course this was from a European perspective since it is an old system started in Europe. So the common primrose (Primula vulgaris) was the basis for this decision. Not all primulas flower very early and different species can flower as late as August (such as Primula capitata). But, for most of us they are spring flowers and colourful and delightful, even when used in massed bedding as in this April photo in Harrogate (above).
There are about 500 species, mostly from around the Northern hemisphere. I have mentioned the breeding systems of primulas before on previous posts so here are a few primulas I like.
Though not for everyone, if you have moist, acid soil, the candelabra groups of species and hybrids are very popular, thriving in sun or part shade and relishing the wet conditions beside ponds and streams where they will seed prolifically. In bright colours, with tiers of flowers on tall stems, they are at their best when allowed to naturalise.
Among the cutest of all primulas are those grouped as auriculas, with succulent leaves and prim flowers in unimaginable colour combinations. Fragrant and hardy, some are best grown in cold greenhouses because of the farina (white paste) on the petals.
They can almost be treated like pets and can become an obsession.
Not all primulas are hardy. My favourites include P. verticillata and its progeny P. x kewensis (both of which I have seeds waiting to sprout as I write) with farina covered leaves and joyous, yellow, intensely fragrant flowers in spring. They need just a little protection from cold and winter wet and are longlived. Much easier to find is the colourful and long-flowering Primula obconica. This Chinese species has large leaves and clusters of flowers on stems held above the foliage and the flowers are sweetly scented. The big problem with this plant is that the leaves can cause dermatitis in some people but new varieties have eliminated this problem. Kept cool and on a bright windowsill there is no reason why this should not look lovely for at least four months, longer if kept watered and fed.
Less often seen, but just as delightful is Primula malacoides, the fairy primrose. It is a shame, given its common name, that modern varieties have been bred to be short and dumpy and they have lost their grace. These are not as long lived so buy them in flower for a month or two of colour.
Next is a species that I have no name for. It was grown and given to me by a friend in a nearby village. ‘Bubbles’ never got the name for it as far as I know but it was a lovely thing that was perennial and seeded around the greenhouse with elegant lilac flowers almost all year round.
One of the latest to bloom and the most distinctive of all, is Primula viallii. The lavender flowers emerge from red calyces to give a red-hot-poker effect. It is easy to grow from seed but is generally rather shortlived.