While most of us have come to associate primroses as some of the first flowers of spring, this diverse genus can be found in bloom from midwinter right into early summer. Those early-blooming Polyanthus can be difficult to keep from year to year but the perennial forms are quite reliable, given optimal care and regular division. What is not in doubt is the vast spectrum of flower colour and form that this genus provides, so I thought we would take an in-depth look at primulas.
Polyanthus – These are your supermarket variety primulas which can be found at every garden centre and corner store starting in late January. They are complex hybrids originally thought to be a cross of Cowslip (P. veris) and the common primula (Primula vulgaris) which gained popularity due to their showy central blooms that come in a multitude of colours, including picotee and veined varieties. While most of us take these relatively inexpensive plants for granted, few flowers provide such a bold winter display for those early mixed containers and hanging baskets. If possible, keep these under cover as the rain quickly spoils the flowers and the foliage is quite susceptible to fungal problems, as they have been grown with heat out of season. Also, you’ll find that many of the yellow varieties still retain a sweet fragrance on those rare warmer days.
Primula veris, Polyantha 'Orion Frost Rose', Primula veris 'Sunset Shades'
Common Primrose – Primula vulgaris is a staple of the English cottage garden and an invaluable perennial for open shade exposures. Many of the double forms such as ‘Miss Indigo’, ‘Quaker’s Bonnet’ (pink), ‘Corporal Baxter’ (red), ‘April Rose’, ‘Blue Sapphire’ and ‘Ken Dearman’ (apricot) have been with us for decades now. Newer hybrids such as the Belarina Series bring us better vigour and subtle colour options in such hybrids as ‘Nectarine’ and ‘Pink Champagne’. There are also Jack-in-the-Green types like ‘Dawn Ansell’ (white) with sepal collars at the base of the blooms as well as those with dark foliage, including ‘Kennedy Irish Innisfree’ (ruby red flowers over bronzed leaves). Perhaps the most interesting cultivar ‘Francisca’, has local origins; as this frilled green-flowered variety with a yellow eye was first discovered by plantswoman Francisca Darts in a Surrey BC traffic island. This group also includes the modern semi-double Primlets (sometimes listed as P.acaulis) which are available early season in a variety of colours.
Primula vulgaris 'Belarina Nectarine' , Primula vulgaris 'Blue Sapphire', Primula vulgaris 'Corporal Baxter', Primula vulgaris 'Dawn Ansell', Primula vulgaris 'Francisca', Primula vulgaris 'Kennedy Irish Innisfree', Mixed Primlets, Primula vulgaris 'Belarina Pink Champagne'
Candelabra or PomPom Types – This category includes a number of species with tiered or balled flowers held on a stem above the crown. The latter includes Primula denticulata or Drumstick primula which is generally purplish-blue in colour but also comes in pink and white forms. The slightly more sculpted Himalayan Primrose (P. capitata) bears violet-blue blossoms dusted in silvery-white. Moisture loving Primula japonica and P. bulleyana (including the subspecies bessiana) bring a riot of colour (pink, yellow, white, gold and crimson) to any pond-side garden with their multi-tiered flowers and both are USDA zone 5 hardy.
Primula japonica 'Miller's Crimson', Primula japonica 'Apple Blossom', Primula japonica, Primula bulleyana, Primula denticulata
Juliana or Wanda Hybrids – In my opinion there probably isn’t a more bulletproof primula than the old-fashioned ‘Wanda’. It is an RHS Award of Garden Merit winner (1919) and I have seen its purple blossoms grace many a garden that has been long abandoned, so it can take care of itself. Newer Wanda hybrids bring us the full colour range of red, raspberry pink, white, violet and bright yellow. This early-blooming cross of Primula juliae and a crimson form of P. acaulis is USDA Zone 3 hardy and grows very tight to the ground.