Some of the most desirable plants in the world belong to the primula family. Whatever the conditions in your garden, there are primulas you can grow that will fill it with colour, scent and beauty. Spring is their time to shine, though many of the Asiatic primulas last into midsummer. The most familiar primula, and the one closest to many of our hearts, is the primrose – the ‘first rose of spring’. It favours a west-facing site with shade for part of the day, but will grow practically anywhere with rich soil. Each flower is held on a pale pink stem. The pale flowers show up in the dim light to lure insects, and their egg-yolk centres advertise nectar and pollen.
Like other primulas, primroses come in two different forms: thrum-eyed and pin-eyed. The petals join together at the base forming a tube. In pin-eyed types, the stigma (which receives the pollen) is visible at the top of this tube (in the centre of the petals) and looks like a small, greenish, flat pin-head. In thrum-eyed types, the anthers (which donate the pollen) are visible at the top of the flower tube and are seen as a yellow/orange mass. This helps to ensure that plants do not pollinate themselves, thus maintaining and increasing diversity.
The primrose is not our only native primula. There’s the tiny bird’s eye primula, Primula farinosa, the cowslip, Primula veris, and a much rarer plant, the oxlip, Primula elatior. Unlike primroses, cowslips prefer free-draining soil and are perfect for naturalising if you’ve got flinty or chalky soil and an open situation.
If, on the other hand, you have moist or heavy soil, and want colour and impact, then look to the east. Asiatic primulas are a huge group of plants, growing mainly on streamside or boggy ground, through the Himalayas, into China and Japan. Like most primulas, they are hardy and robust. Some have belled flowers held at the top of stems, many others are tall candelabra types, coming in a rainbow of hues. If you have a dry, sunny rock garden, or need to grow primulas in pots, auriculas are the solution. The variety of their scented flowers is awe-inspiring and ranges from crimson to vivid yellow, from grey to green to blue. Some of their petals are velvety, some covered in white powder.
See Carol’s pick of the best primulas, below.
The purest, most simple of all primroses which, as it is native, always looks at home. Plant in soil rich in organic matter, in a spot that is shaded for part of the day.
Height x spread: 20cm x 25cm
One of the Asiatic candelabra primulas, Primula bulleyana has striking orange flowers held in whorls around the stems, opening from the lowest first. Loves moist, boggy soil.
H x S: 60cm x 30cm
Primula vulgaris ‘Lilacina Plena’
This is one of the oldest recorded doubles, with a beauty unmatched by modern hybrids. It is sterile so must be divided to make more.
H x S: 20cm x 20cm
People are always intrigued by this primula, with its red-hot poker style spikes. Lilac flowers open from the red buds at the base first. It enjoys damp, acidic conditions so is perfect for a bog garden.
H x S: 60cm x 30cm
Primula ‘Gold-laced group’
The black, velvet-like flowers are held symmetrically at the top of a straight stem. Together with the gold-edged petals this creates a formal impression. It is a type of polyanthus and so is just as easy to grow as the more common, brightly coloured types. Grow it from seed and then divide the best plants with the darkest petals and clearest edges.
Height x spread: 25cm x 30cm
Primula sieboldii hybrids
The species comes from Japan where it grows wild in damp meadows, it has cult status and its devotees cultivate it in specially designed pots. In the garden it is perfectly hardy.
H x S: 30cm x 30cm
The ‘Himalayan cowslip’ is a giant amongst primulas, and can reach over one metre tall. Flowers are held in pendulous clusters atop tall stems. They emit a deliciously sweet perfume. A marginal or bog-dweller, it needs wet soil.
H x S: 1.2m x 90cm
Primula auricula hybrids
From the mountains of Europe, the species evolved to cope with a hostile environment. Farina (white powder) on their leaves protects them from hot sun, and in winter the leaves roll inwards.
H x S: 20cm x 25cm