Primroses for New England

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The Primrose is among the first of the flowers to bloom in the spring garden. The Latin name, Primula, means “first”. Primula is a genus of about 425 species that occur in a wide range of habitats, from bogs and marshes to alpine areas. They are widely distributed in the Northern hemisphere, mostly in Europe and Asia. Most are extremely cold hardy, some to Zone 3.

Primula have linear to ovate green leaves in basal rosettes, and attractive flowers that are salvoform (thin tube with flat petals) or tubular or bell-shaped. Many are fringed. The flowers are often produced on slender to thick flower stalks in umbels, whorls or spikes.

 primula rusbyi

primula rusbyi

Primula species that are native to the US are found in the western part of the country, primarily in mountain regions. They require thoughtful placement in garden settings in the New England.  Primula rusbyi, the Rusby Primrose (Z3), is native to the mountains of the Southwestern US. It has rosette-forming, toothed green leaves and salverform rose-red to deep purple flowers. It’s useful in alpine and rock gardens with reliable moisture.

 Primula 'Cabrillo'

Primula 'Cabrillo'

Other Primula species, however, grow very well in our area and provide unique beauty and brilliance to the spring garden. Primula veris, or Cowslip, native to Europe and West Asia, is very successful in my garden in dappled shade in rich soil. I have planted a cultivar named ‘Cabrillo’ in a slightly low area, not boggy at all, but never overly dry. It has sweet-smelling, brilliant yellow blossoms, and is the first primrose to bloom.

 red-flowered cowslip

red-flowered cowslip

Cowslip has a long history of use in herbal and folk remedies to treat a variety of ailments. Its leaves have been used in teas to cure nerves and anxiety, its flowers to treat bruises, and its roots as an expectorant to break up mucus. In 17th century England, applying water distilled from cowslip, or an ointment made from cowslip flowers, was thought to make one more beautiful.

 Primula seiboldii

Primula seiboldii

Another primrose that is exceptional in our area is Primula seiboldii (Siebold Primrose, Z4). It has showy flowers in late spring held in umbels above attractive foliage. Colors range from white to soft pink to magenta or bluish lavender, and may differ on the petal reverse. Petals may be smoothly rounded or as intricately cut as snowflakes. Unlike most primroses, it can go summer-dormant to escape summer conditions that are too hot or dry for it.

I grow a cultivar called ‘Smooch’ and find it to be a beautiful, tough, trouble-free plant with gorgeous textured leaves. I love plants that make me get down on my hands and knees for a closer look – and ‘Smooch’ does just that. Its delicate complexity gets me every time – it is fascinating. It spreads from shallow, branching rhizomes, and has spread nicely in my garden.

 Candelabra primrose

Candelabra primrose

The Candelabra Primrose (Primula japonica, Z4) thrives in moist to wet areas in dappled shade. It can be grown alongside a water feature or pond, or near the house by a downspout that keeps the soil moist. It is a robust perennial with rosettes of finely scalloped or toothed light green leaves. Whorls of red-purple to white flowers appear in mid-May and June.

Candelabra Primrose sets seed readily, and forms lovely colonies that display substantial genetic variation as seen in this garden in Plymouth. New plants can be grown from collected seed and planted elsewhere in the garden, shared with friends, or sold at plant sales.

 primula vulgaris

primula vulgaris

Primula vulgaris (English Primrose Z4) is native to the open woodlands and shady banks of Europe and W. Turkey. It adapts well to the home garden in locations that are not dry. The species has rosettes of bright green leaves and clusters of fragrant pale yellow flowers. It has many hybrids and cultivars displaying a wide range of colors, from purples and reds, to whites and yellows.

 primula vulgaris

primula vulgaris

Primroses are beautiful additions to the spring garden. They combine beautifully with other shade plants such as hosta, bloodroot, and epimedium. Given the right conditions, they will add color to your garden for years to come!

By Joan Butler