Primroses can get you primed for spring


In a sunny, moist site such as this one at Winterthur Museum and Garden near Wilmington, Del., Japanese primroses bloom and spread. (Gottlieb Hampfler/GOTTLIEB HAMPFLER/WINTERTHUR)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist March 16, 2011

As winters go, the fast-departing season was a good one. It was a bit dry there before last week’s deluge, and a heavy snowstorm did awful damage to some trees, but the weather turned cold early and stayed that way for the duration. Hardy plants like it thus: They can hibernate without fear of a January warm spell coaxing them into tender growth.

While apple trees and photinia bushes have enjoyed the prolonged chill, humans have been chafing for several weeks now. In hushed elevators, one high-rise traveler can be counted on to turn to another, muttering, “I’m ready for spring.”

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

The signs are there: the greening of the willow stems, the flowering of the red maples and the blooming of the wee bulbous irises. But for folks who find such developments too subtle and can’t quite wait for the curtain to rise with the cherry blossoms, there is the primrose. Garishly cheerful, the primrose is an old-fashioned, simple flower whose bright yellow and red blooms sit like Easter eggs in a nest of crinkled leaves.

It is more brash than a simple flock of miniature daffodils or even a cluster of pansies, but it has a common charm about it that only the most snobbish would find vulgar.

The primrose is associated with fateful indifference to reality — the primrose path and all that — and the potted primrose can lead you astray if your expectations are too high. So lower them.

On paper, you could stick a primrose in the garden and it will come back and bloom, year after year. But the popular polyantha, or florist’s primroses, aren’t happy when the Washington area’s English springs turn into Florida summers. They also hate drought, and the ones bred for mass sale now have been developed for rapid production in a greenhouse. In sum, treat your primrose as a seasonal annual and let it go in May. If you are keeping it indoors, place it in a bright and cool location and don’t let it dry out. (Remove any fancy wrapping and place a saucer under the pot.)

If you want to grow it outside in a container, windowbox or garden bed, first spend a few days placing the primrose outdoors in a sheltered spot and bring it in at night. This will acclimate it to life without the greenhouse, where it was raised from seed over the winter.

It is possible to have truly perennial primroses in the garden, but the look is different. Richard May, a primrose nurseryman in Orono, Maine, says there may be more than 400 species of primrose or primula, but they fall into two distinct sorts: The type such as the florist’s primrose, whose blossoms sit low on the crown of the plant, and those that are arrayed on stems. The garden varieties are of the latter ilk, blooming for weeks in May and requiring moisture. The classic streamside primrose of the display gardens of the Delaware Valley is the Japanese primrose, whose elevated whorls are found in white and various shades of red and pink. If Japanese primroses receive the growing conditions they like, they will spread by seed, though the plant crosses and flower color are chosen by pollinating insects rather than the gardener.

In the moist woodland, a place where ferns and hostas grow happily, the Siebold primrose blooms around the same time as the Japanese species, in mid to late May, but is more delicate in size and flower array. The blooms vary from magenta to white and would make a nice addition to shade garden plantings of trillium, solomon’s seal and woodland phlox.

Siebold primroses would need watering in dry spells, and they disappear in late summer even when happy, but they don’t share the Japanese primrose’s tolerance of constantly wet conditions. “Both would need moisture, and the more moisture, the more sun they could take,” said May, who runs a mail-order nursery named Evermay. His spring shipments begin in April (www.evermaynursery.com).

Both the common primrose and the related cowslip drew the attention of Charles Darwin. Most primulas share an odd trait. In some the flowers have the pollen-bearing anthers above the style, in others the style extends above the anthers. Darwin and other scientists concluded that this was a mechanism to minimize self-pollination and promote cross-fertilization, with the aid of pollinating insects.

The short-style flowers are called thrum, the long-style called pin. This may be useful when you are trying to impress others at cocktail parties. For the gardener, it is more evidence that plants are wondrous and reward close study — even the common ones that fulfill primal needs for a jump on spring.

Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter.

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