Simple things – appreciating primula species

Many square metres of Primula helodoxa

Mark wasn’t particularly optimistic about the primula seedlings we were given some months ago. “We can’t do primulas well,” he said. I went away and thought about this and came back to him, pointing out that we can do Primula helodoxa rather too well, Primula obconica has stayed in one patch of garden for at least two decades despite minimal attention and the annual Primula malacoides pops up prettily around the place and would pop up everywhere if we didn’t restrict its spread. What he meant, I figured, was that we have not succeeded with the choice species like Primula vialii and the Inshriach hybrids which brought a range of different colours, did well initially and then just faded out.

Primula denticulata in the recently planted perennial meadow of the Iolanthe garden

More than one flower spike is forming in many of the plants which is a good sign.

This new primula is a wild form of  P. denticulata, so nothing too out of the ordinary or fussy.  It put up its first flowers a few months ago and, to my delight, is a pretty lilac blue. I am very hopeful it will do well here because it is a colour I really like. To be honest, it is more lilac than blue but that is fine. It has a good strong stem and holds its round flower head up well at 30 to 40cm above the foliage. What is particularly pleasing is that the stronger plants are putting up multiple flower heads. It is always encouraging to get a new plant and even better when you get given over 20 of them rather than buying a single plant and then trying to build it up. Time will tell if it settles in happily over several years and whether it is a suitable candidate for naturalising in meadow conditions but the early signs are good.

The only two polyanthus I kept on the left, Primula vulgare or the wild English primroe in a tiny bunch of nostalgia on the right

The primula family is huge with around 500 or more species. The English primrose, Primula vulgaris, was one of my English mother’s favourite plants in every garden she made – and in her lifetime she made many. I just have one patch of it because the foliage to flower ratio is rather too high in our mild climate but I like to keep it out of nostalgia. As a child, my mother encouraged me to pick flowers (always with long stems, she stressed, and the rule of thumb was that I could pick anything except the roses) and my bouquets were often primroses and grape hyacinths.

Primula malacoides – easy to pull out if it is in the wrong place but charming enough to allow it to gently seed around some areas

Polyanthus and auriculas also belong to the primula family. I am never sure whether I like auriculas. I can admire the curious flower markings but I am not sure how or where one would place them in a garden situation without having them look like a fake flower that was bought from The Warehouse. Maybe this is one of the reasons for that odd feature of the auricula theatre favoured by some UK gardeners – they couldn’t work out how to place them effectively as garden plants, either. Fortunately, this is an academic question here because auriculas are a plant that does way better in colder climates than ours.

Primula obconica has staying power here

Polyanthus are a cheap and cheerful late winter and early spring plant in many gardens. When our children were little, we would sometimes call in to a local hobby grower and let the children select the colours they liked to plant at home. Over time, I have cast out all polyanthus here except for a pure yellow one that I keep in one spot and a good performing white that I have in another area. They lack the refinement of the species that I now prefer; they need regular digging and dividing to keep them performing well and they tend to attract weevils. The weevil larvae show as wriggly white wormy things, usually about half a centimetre long. Years of nursery work instilled a fear of black vine weevils. Perfectly healthy-looking trees and shrubs in the nursery could suddenly flop overnight and forensic examination would reveal that the plants had been ringbarked by weevils just below the level of the potting mix. It took a lot of effort, changed practices, expense and the use of a rather strong chemical to eradicate weevils from the nursery. I am not keen on getting major infestations of these critters in the garden.

My rule of thumb is that I squish any white wriggly things I find in the garden soil. I don’t mind doing that for the new lilac blue prims if they settle in here for the long haul.

Primula denticulata – seedling grown so there will be variation in the flowers

11 thoughts on “Simple things – appreciating primula species

  1. tonytomeo

    Except for the common bedding plant sorts that should not be as popular as they are, Primula never became popular here. I would not mind them so much if they were as interesting as these. Those that I work with are so cartoonish.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I share your disdain for bedding plants. Best on traffic islands, in my opinion. Much prefer these gentler, finer species as garden plants.

      1. tonytomeo

        Yes, as perennials that one need not be ashamed of.
        I noticed in pictures of gardens in other regions that what I think of as ‘common’ English primrose are actually respectable perennials elsewhere, and can even be nice annuals if they are not used as ‘cheaply’ as they are here. I would not mind them so much if gardeners where more tactful with them. They lose their appeal if too abundant and too flashy.

  2. Jennifer Duval-Smith (@JDuvalSmith)

    I adore the Victorian theatricality of auriculas but I agree it’s hard to settle them into a naturalistic planting scheme, and they are pretty much useless in our semi tropical climate. I am very fond of a large terracotta dish of three dark red ‘Victoriana’ auricula wannabees – primula? Polyanthus? which I bought at the dreaded Bunnings. Perhaps it’s the more deliberately ornamental/decor type setting, but they work so nicely. I too have fond memories of being able to choose my own polyanthus as a child and although may of them are quite garish, that nostalgia still attaches.

  3. Paddy Tobin

    Pleeeeeease, you can’t complain that you can’t grow primulas! Not with those displays! P. vulgaris is, as the name suggests, the common primrose here and self-seeds and crosses with abandon. P. japonica is our second most successful – given wettest conditions it thrives.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I promptly did a search to see if the Inshriachs were bred from japonica but I see they are bulleesiana hybrids and I know absolutely nothing about bulleesiana. I think Mark just got discouraged by the primulas that failed – not sure how many different ones he tried.

  4. Tim Dutton

    We can and do grow huge swathes of Primula here, especially the candelabra types, no doubt thanks to our copious rainfall and heavy clay soil. Most self seed with abandon: helodoxa, japonica and pulverulenta, plus lots of crosses between the latter two in varying shades of pink or sometimes marbled magenta and white. The most spectacular candelabra we grow, mainly along the wet channels in our swamp garden, is an unidentified hybrid that is apricot with yellow centres, which grows 1.2 metres tall, and shows up above the Iris ensatas that also grow there. It is sterile, but we have produced dozens through division.

      1. Tim Dutton

        We got it from one of the gardens in the Taranaki Fringe Garden Festival and have seen one that looks the same in the Hollard Gardens Swamp. It is certainly quite spectacular given its great height as well as unusual colour.

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