I adore primroses. My season starts with the big blowsy ones in the greenhouse in February. Of course they are garish and probably not hardy, but they give welcome colour in the dreariest season. But these are just winter baubles, the real magic starts in the garden in March and April.
I know the native ones can’t be improved upon and we are lucky here in rural Suffolk that primroses are everywhere along the lanes and in the ditches and soon they will be joined by cowslips. I keep my native primroses away from the hybridised ones although I notice a little pink one has crept in.
For centuries now gardeners have sought out the doubles and the hose- in -hose and all the little curiosities of nature but pollination in plants wasn’t understood for a long time, so it was a hit and miss affair. Doubles appeared as mutations of the single primrose. They have been documented since 1500. But they are hard to keep going. They are prone to rot in the centre or just gradually die out and they are largely infertile. They need to be very well fed and regularly divided. I have loved and lost some lovely heritage doubles including most of the following. Modern doubles have a stronger constitution.
Of course enthusiasts always seek out freaks and anomalous plants. Elizabethans were mad about freaky primroses and they are still called Elizabethan primroses. The two they loved were ‘Jack-in-the-green’ which have a ruff of green leaves round each flower and ‘Hose-in-hose. Hose-in-hose has two identical flowers one inside the other.
I don’t know where the lovely gold and silver- laced primrose came from but they have been around since the late 17th century. Just like auriculas they were ‘florists’ flowers and grown to be exhibited in the 19th century. I always lost them until I got the hang of feeding and dividing them.
In 1900 a Polish woman Julia Ludvikovna Mlokossjewicz found carpets of a delightful little primula growing in damp ground in the eastern Caucasus. Primula juliae as it was named, revolutionised primrose breeding and many new hybrids were introduced. The most famous of these is the dear little Primula pruhonicensis ‘Wanda’. It has nice compact rosettes of leaves and masses of flowers.
I have another Primula pruhonicensis hybrid in pink.
Lovely little ‘Lady Greer’ also has juliae blood. I love its crinkly leaves. It was introduced in the early 20th Century in Ireland.
Another old one which appeared about the same time with juliae in its breeding is the lovely dark red Primula ‘Tawny Port’.
I love red primroses and this next one is a gorgeous shade of tomato red.
And we had a shower of rain this afternoon so this red one looks particularly luscious.
Many new primroses were introduced in the 18th and 19th centuries but primroses are miffy little things and many of the ones our ancestors enjoyed have disappeared. Margery Fish loved primroses and reading her book you realise that many that she loved no longer exist. I don’t know whether this is because of viruses are primrose sickness. Like roses, you can’t keep planting primroses in the same place.
We have plenty of native cowslips in Suffolk and soon they will be in bloom too. Polyanthus are a cross between primroses and cowslips and if you have both in your garden they will hybridise readily. Acaulis primroses have one flower per stem but polyanthus have one stem with several flowers. Some of the modern polyanthus hybrids are a bit oversized and garish but the ones that occur naturally in the garden are often delightful. And they are very vigorous.
I love this peachy coloured one.
And this next one is the colour of butterscotch.
For many years ‘Barnhaven’ hybrids were my favourites, they were easy to grow from seeds and came in such yummy colours. You have to keep dividing them to keep them going. In a previous garden I used to grow them on the banks of a stream which they liked. But even so they died out eventually. These days the seeds are difficult to get hold of.
Ireland has been the home of successful primrose breeding. A couple of years ago I discovered Kennedy hybrids from Ireland. They have been bred over the last 30 years by an amateur, Joe Kennedy in his garden in Ireland. Many of them have lovely bronze leaves. They are all highly desirable.
If you want to try breeding your own strain of primroses you have to learn something about their sex lives. They are hermaphrodite and if you look at them closely you will see that you have two sorts. Thrum-eyed primroses have their stigmas inside the flower tube and the anthers are at the top. Pin-eyed ones have their stigma at the top of the flower tube and the anthers are half way down. To pollinate you need to put the pollen from a thrum -eyed primrose on to the stigma of a pin-eyed flower. You will rarely get any success if you try a pin x pin or a thrum x thrum. Clever Darwin noticed this just from close observation.
Tricky little alpine primulas are bit beyond me. This one is in the alpine house at Cambridge Botanical Garden.
I have never tried growing Primula sieboldii but now thanks to the generosity of my lovely blogging chum Gill at Off the Edge blog I have this lovely plant, Primula sieboldii ‘Essie’, so this is going to set me off on a whole new obsession.
Auriculas are of course primulas and I am mad on them but they are not quite out yet and they will have to wait for another post.