Sweet Spring-Garden Primroses

Cowslips are easy-care European native wildflowers that lend a cottage-garden look to spring beds.

Primroses (known botanically as Primula) have a reputation for being garden prima donnas. Often, this characterization is deserved. Many Primula are fussy garden dwellers at best, hailing from specialized habitats such as alpine crevices and glacial screes. Don’t let this fact keep you from the numerous easily cultivated and highly rewarding members of the genus, however. If you have some shade (or in some cases, even if you don’t) and you’re somewhere in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 8, there’s likely a primrose for your garden. Of course, you’ll want to amend any sandy or heavy clay soil with a good helping of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.

Drumstick Primrose (Primula denticulata)

The drumstick blooms of this primula are fun and good for cutting.

The primrose season starts in late winter or early spring with this adorable but surprisingly tough little elf from the Himalayas. The common name refers to the ball-shaped flower cluster that forms the business end of the imaginary “drumstick”. The 4-inch flower stem comprises the stubby “stick”. A rosette of toothed, oval, up-angled leaves collars the base of the stick (as is the case with most of the other primroses described below). Primula denticulata blooms in a wide range of colors, from the typical mauve-purple through shades of white, pink, red, and violet-blue. The all-white ‘Alba‘ is easily found in nurseries as is traditional pink. A not-too-dry soil in part shade is ideal, but it will do fine in moist sunny niches in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 7.

Common Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

Though bred in many wild colors, the traditional common primrose bears pale yellow flowers with a darker eye.

In the wild, this cherished European native bears individual yellow flowers on 4- to 6-inch stems over clumps of somewhat radish-like leaves. In cultivation, it’s been selected and hybridized into numerous hues, often with the “wild” yellow coloration confined to a central eye. Many vulgaris spinoffs produce clustered rather than individual blooms. Most notable of these are the popular Polyanthus hybrids (Zones 4-8), which flower in a rainbow of colors from rich red to deep blue. Flowers of “acaulis” hybrids – another swarm of primroses derived from Primula vulgaris – are singly borne. Among the best of the acaulis hybrids are the Juliana primroses, a swarm of miniature cultivars involving the diminutive species Primula juliae. The earliest vulgaris hybrids and forms (including the Julianas) bloom with the drumsticks in late winter and early spring, but some varieties flower weeks later. Many are sweetly fragrant, adding further sensual delight to the early-season garden. Partial shade and humus-rich soil are ideal for all forms and hybrids of this storied species.

Cowslip (Primula veris)

Cowslips are carefree garden flowers for spring.

Another European native treasured and cultivated since ancient times, cowslip (Zones 3-8) is instantly recognized by its signature lopsided clusters of nodding yellow to red flowers that are corseted with funnel-shaped bracts for much of their length, with the petals flaring at the tips. Their form and presentation lend them a lovably disheveled look, ideally suited for cottage gardens and other informal settings in partial shade to moist full sun. Named selections include ‘Coronation’, a seed-grown strain with relatively large yellow, orange, or red flowers (‘Sunset Shades’ is similar). The subspecies macrocalyx also has larger flowers that tend toward orange. All forms of cowslip flower a bit later than most of the vulgaris primroses, in early to mid-spring. They’re also quite lime-tolerant, doing well in acid to slightly alkaline soil.

Oxslip (Primula elatior)

Oxslips are fuller, larger, and more symmetrical than cowslips.

Europe gives us a third eminently growable yellow-flowered primrose species, Primula elatior (Zones 3-8). The scentless, straw-yellow blooms flare more broadly at the tips than those of cowslip, and are presented in fuller, more symmetrical clusters. Flowering time and soil preferences are much the same as cowslip’s.

Cherryblossom Primrose (Primula sieboldii)

Cherryblossom primrose comes in lots of pleasing pink and white shades.

Primula saves some of its most spectacular displays for late spring, as exemplified by this highly adaptable, multi-splendored East Asian native. In mid to late May cherryblossom primrose (Zones 4-8) throws abundant clusters of showy, starry blooms that arise from spreading clumps of scalloped leaves. The typically wedge-shaped petals are variously cut and fringed and crimped, depending on the variety. Flower color ranges from pink to purple to blue to white, often with contrasting striping. It’s for good reason that Japanese gardeners have selected and named hundreds of cultivars of cherryblossom primrose over the centuries. A few of these so-called Sakurasoh hybrids are available in the U.S. and are well worth seeking out. But any form of Primula sieboldii makes an excellent addition to a partly shaded, acidic garden niche. Plants are early-dormant in summer and late to arise in spring, so be sure to remember where you planted them!

Candelabra Primrose (Primula japonica)

Japanese of candelabra primroses grow best in moist soil.

Actually, there are many candelabra primrose (Zones 4-8) species, all flowering gloriously in late spring – but this is the quintessential one. The common name comes from the tiered whorls of flowers borne candelabra-fashion on 2- to 3-foot stems, over shaggy clumps of large puckered leaves. Primula japonica usually flowers in red (as in ‘Miller’s Crimson’), but white and pink forms also occur (including ‘Postford White’ and ‘Apple Blossom’). Other candelabra species venture into other parts of the spectrum, including yellow (Primula bulleyana) and lavender-purple (Primula beesiana). Hybridization readily occurs between varieties and species, so plant only one if you don’t want mongrel seedlings. All candelabra primroses thrive in humus-rich, damp to boggy soil in part shade or sun.

Any one of these Primula would make a wonderful, carefree addition to your spring garden. If you think all primroses are prima donnas, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.

About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.

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