Down the Primrose Path.

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.

Jack -in -the- Green Primrose

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.

Silver Laced Primula

Gold Laced Primula

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.

Primula pruhonicensis

Lovely little ‘Lady Greer’  also has juliae blood. I love its crinkly leaves. It was introduced in the early 20th Century in Ireland.

Primula ‘Lady Greer’

Another old one which appeared about the same time with juliae in its breeding is the lovely dark red Primula ‘Tawny Port’.

Primula ‘Tawny Port’

I love red primroses and this next one is a gorgeous shade of tomato red.

Primula ‘Tomato Red’

And we had a shower of rain this afternoon so this red one looks particularly luscious.

Primula ‘Innisfree’

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.

Thrum- eyed Primrose


Pin- eyed Primrose

Tricky little alpine primulas are bit beyond me. This one is in the alpine house at Cambridge Botanical Garden.

Primula allonii ‘Pink Aire’ 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.

Primula sieboldii ‘Essie’

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.

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35 Responses to Down the Primrose Path.

  1. These are beautiful! 💗

  2. bcparkison says:

    Oh my..I may be in love. Wonder if they will grow here?Hmmm

  3. Pauline says:

    What a wonderful selection you have, really stunning! I thought I had quite a few varieties, but you have so many more. I haven’t had any trouble buying seed from Barnhaven Primulas, I have just planted out about 20 Primula sieboldii which I have grown from seed from Barnhaven, just hope they like my little woodland.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Pauline. How lovely to have your own Primula sieboldii from seed. But where did you get Barnhaven seeds? Did you have them sent over from America?

  4. Christina says:

    What really astounds me is that you know all their names!! There are so many, I’m afraid I would just enjoy them and that would be it. But thank you for sharing your passion and knowledge.

    • Chloris says:

      But as you know, I am a complete nerd. I’m like one of those trainspotters who carefully notes down train numbers in a notebook and then memorises them.

  5. Plant nerds unite! I will join in, Primroses are a tabletop plant at my house. What a wonderful and informative post. I had no idea about most of it and learned a lot. And the flowers are just lovely.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Amy. Nice to know I’m not the only nerd. I can never remember people’s names which can be embarrassing sometimes, but plant names seem to stick. Apart from ferns and succulents too, but specially ferns; I love them but I have a blind spot when it comes to their names.

  6. I didn’t realize there were so many different kinds. I have tried them here, but they only grow as a winter annual.

  7. snowbird says:

    How wonderful seeing so many varieties of primroses. I loved finding out more about them. You are a fountain of knowledge!xxx

  8. Kris P says:

    What a large and diverse collection you have! I love primroses too. I always had some in my tiny former garden. I planted them in my current garden too but, between the drier conditions here and the onset of the drought, they haven’t fared well. Even when treated as annuals, they don’t last long. Our local garden centers don’t offer anything like the range of choices shown in your post either. In fact, I’d say that the number of varieties available has actually decreased in recent years.

    • Chloris says:

      I can see why primroses don’t do well for you. They like moist soil. They do particularly well in Cornwall and Ireland where they get plenty of rain. I have to keep them moist and feed them well and divide them to keep them going. It is worth it though.

  9. Eliza Waters says:

    Wow, what a collection you have, Liz! I enjoyed reading this post very much. I had no idea that there were so many different kinds of primulas.

  10. I’ve never gotten into Primroses, but I do appreciate them. You have an amazing collection!

  11. I love the Barnhaven and the gold and silver-laced primulas. You have a beautiful selection. I love that butterscotch one!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Ali. It is worth seeking out Barnhaven seeds. The butterscotch one is growing near a cowslip so the bees must have been busy and made a cross with one of my coloured primroses.

  12. tonytomeo says:

    Pictures such a these remind me why the British and so many others are so fond of primroses. Our selection is so very limited. They just do not do very well for us.

  13. Cathy says:

    What a range you have, Chloris, and of course your nerdy discourse just adds to the pleasure of reading the post. Interesting to read how important it is to feed and divide. I am still undecided whether it is worth tring to keep the 2 or 3 pretties that are currently in the Coop – although pretty they are not named and were probably grown just for once-only display

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Cathy. You might as well plant your primulas out, even if they die they will add to the genetic material of your existing primroses and make interesting offspring.

  14. Oh a “nerdy discourse” – Cathy’s tongue in cheek remark prompted a chuckle from me. You have a fabulous collection of primroses Chloris. Thanks for sharing them and your knowledge with us. Is ‘Sue Jervis’ one of your lost doubles? If so I can send a a division to you when I split mine. I noticed your reply to Pauline’s comment. Thought that you might like to hear that Barnhaven Primroses have been based in France for some years now and sell both plants and seeds :

  15. Wow, such an amazing variety of color and form. I like the simple white and yellow single Primulas, but I’m also bowled over by the Silver-Laced Primula.

  16. What good company Essie is in! You are a primula wonder. Such a sight for a dull April morning with the promise of rain on the way.

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