Miss Floribunda: The primrose – an international treasure

Great writers like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Keats have all celebrated the primrose in their poetry.

Dear Miss Floribunda,

I appreciate finding potted primroses at the Hyattsville Horticultural Society seed sale every year for a reasonable price, and always buy a few to beguile myself during the last grey days of winter. Primroses have special significance for me because much of my childhood was spent in the British Isles, where they are wildflowers and as much a harbinger of spring as the cuckoo. Actually, reverence for them goes back to the druids, and they often pop up in English history and poetry. Queen Victoria and her prime minister Disraeli exchanged bouquets of these blossoms. Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats are among the many poets who celebrated them. Jill Barklem illustrated her Brambly Hedge books about Primrose Woodmouse with them, and in my opinion the Primrose Fairy is the most delightful of Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies.

I do have a question about them. Might they survive if I plant them outside? They have never rebloomed inside and eventually droop and die in their pots. Various neighbors have advised me to stop coddling them and to just enjoy them as indoor plants for as long as I can. You seem to know quite a bit about the Hyattsville microclimate, so I am counting on you to tell me what’s possible or impossible. I do so long to see primroses next spring in my own garden.  

Potty About Primroses on Oglethorpe Street

Dear Potty About Primroses,

Thank you for sharing this fascinating information about the primrose (Primula vulgaris). I have had what I euphemistically call “qualified success” with them in my garden, the few surviving ones hardly visible under shrub roses that have grown over them. Aunt Sioux, however, has had great success with primroses, and they even multiply under her care. I had been meaning for some time to ask her for her secrets, and, inspired by your letter, I consulted her. She has always been my go-to person for native wildflowers, but her interest and expertise go beyond our borders to the native plants of other countries. As you mention, the primrose grows naturally without cultivation in Great Britain — and, indeed, in all of Western Europe. In fact, on my visits to my sister Polyantha and her family in Normandy, I have admired carpets of them beneath the trees in apple orchards.

When I mentioned seeing primroses in orchards to Aunt Sioux, she smiled archly and asked me to recall any I’d seen growing in meadows or in full sun. I could not. She pointed out that primroses are woodland plants, although they are also common in European hedgerows. They need at least light shade and well-drained, slightly acidic soil. She speculated that my shrub roses have served as a hedge, providing enough protection from the sun for them to survive. She speculated that the extra manure I continuously give my roses has lightened the soil for the primroses, who do not like heavy clay, and that the thorns have kept me from displacing them with other plants. Even with good drainage and shade, primroses react to Hyattsville’s summer heat by dying back till the next spring. Knowing that I often add new plants to any even temporarily bare spot in my garden, she suspected that I had inadvertently disturbed primroses after they had finished blooming and disappeared from view. She suggested that in the future I place a marker of some kind — even a clear plastic knife or fork will do — to make sure I know where I have planted new primroses. She advises placing markers next to other spring-flowering plants that cease blooming in summer. They can easily be mistaken for weeds and accidentally removed.

Aunt Sioux herself has established her primroses in a semi-shaded place in her garden, where she adds compost to the soil continuously. Although they have naturalized to some extent, the primroses stopped at the point where they met competition from daffodils. If primroses become crowded, they are susceptible to disease and insect predation. To keep her primroses healthy, Sioux divides them every two years after blooming. She makes sure the soil in their general area is well-watered during dry spells, even though their seasonal disappearance keeps her from knowing exactly where to water. Nor does she plant seeds of any other plant in that area, knowing primroses’ aversion to unchosen companions. Of course, in their native woodland habitat there must be some undergrowth, but certainly nothing like our wiregrass. You would do well to reserve a spot devoted to only your primroses, or place them near trees and shrubs whose root systems would be deeper and not likely to compete.

The Japanese primrose (Primula japonica) is easier to grow because it can tolerate poor drainage, and our own native evening primrose (Oenothera) tolerates full sun, poor soil and competition, but neither has the same romantic associations for you. The Japanese primrose is long-stemmed and comes only in shades of purple and pink, omitting red or the distinctive shade of yellow traditionally associated with primroses. The simple flowers of our native evening primrose are usually a vivid yellow, which makes them look like the primula you love, despite being only distantly related. But these flowers don’t nestle in tidy little rosettes of green leaves in early spring. Instead, they are borne in mid-summer on tall, rather rangy stems with spiky leaves.

If you would like to acquire more of your favorite primroses, the Hyattsville Horticultural Society will be offering them — along with seeds for heat-resistant varieties of vegetables, gardening books, vases and gardening implements — at the Community Forklift Garden Party on Saturday, March 24. The sale takes place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Please look for our table among those of other tempting vendors and introduce yourself.

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