The wild primrose, Primula vulgaris, is known as Mayflooer in Shetland. While many primroses in my garden start their season in March or earlier, the majority are at their best in late April and early May.
When I started out in gardening I soon amassed a large collection, named singles and doubles, amongst them cultivars no longer in this world, as well as the full range of the delectable Barnhaven primroses and polyanthus… Google Roy Genders’ Primrose Catalogue for a glimpse of what there used to be: ‘Prince Silverwings’, ‘Chocolate Soldier’, ‘Blue Horizon’, ‘The Pilgrim’, ‘Sunset Glow; there were even named cultivars of Primula denticulata with names such as ‘Bengal Rose’ – vanished in the mists of time.
All but a very few of my first collection succumbed to the Shetland winters. What is moist, water-retentive soil (recommended for the tribe) elsewhere, is bog in Shetland. My acid, and then unimproved, peaty soil became waterlogged and my treasures dwindled away. Then came the dreaded vine and other weevils to polish off what winter had spared.
Primroses prefer neutral or alkaline ground, and peat ash, applied liberally in early spring, makes a perfect soil sweetener.
The season starts with the pale lavender Primula juliae It is stoloniferous and increases rapidly. The well-known purple P. ‘Wanda’ is hot on its heels and the next to come into bloom is the charming, pale yellow miniature polyanthus ‘Lady Greer’. This has a long flowering period, as its stems elongate and the petals take on a pinkish tinge.
All three are vigorous growers and from a few little well-rooted pieces, carpets of colour can be achieved in just a year or two.
‘Kinlough Beauty’ mentioned last week, falls into the same category.
‘White Wanda’ is as delightful as its purple cousin, but for some reason, tends to dwindle with me. In a garden, west from here, it grows lustily in a gravel path, a hint perhaps that it needs sharper drainage.
Primula ‘Wanda Tomato Red’ took a couple of years to adjust to the climate, but has started to perform well in a raised bed, top-dressed with coarse sand.
Florence Bellis bred the Cowichan polyanthus at the turn of the last century and Barnhaven Primroses grows a delectable range of them. The large yellow eye has been reduced to a tiny central star, making them solid pools of one colour. Their strain ‘Venetian Reds’ is the most successful and vigorous and has of late been taken over by the big boys of horticulture, which I find rather distasteful.
Years of breeding and selecting, somebody’s life’s work, snapped up like that and now marketed as “Venetian Red” As you can see, I’m refusing to honour it with the single quotation marks for a cultivar.
The beauty of the Barnhaven strain lies in its slight variations of colours and flower size, with some blooms showing more orange in their chromatic make-up than others.
Double primroses are quite irresistible, and Barnhaven offers seed of such plants – for gamblers only. Sometimes a packet will yield a dozen or more of the desired plants, sometimes all will be single.
My latest attempt produced a crop of stunning, vigorous but compact reds – all single, a delightful blue single, a cream one attempting to be a double, and a rather unusual orange seedling with small flowers and a rather interesting petal arrangement.
Barnhaven “mystery packets” are hard to resist, cost little and always yield a surprise or two. They consist of seed spilled during packing – the barn sweepings as it were.
Doubles, more so than singles, need regular dividing and replanting in new soil to keep them in good heart. Cell culture has saved the lives of many old named ones, but the plants are never quite as vigorous as those grown by division.
Here are a few favourites: ‘Dawn Ansell’ is a double white Jack-in-the-Green, where the flowers nestle in a ruff of tiny green leaves. ‘Miss Indigo’ and ‘Eugenie’ are superb blues. All three thrive in a well-drained, shady spot. Good old Primula lilacina plena, also known as quaker’s bonnet, increases rapidly with me and don’t mind its floppy stems. The petals of mauve ‘Marie Cruise’ are edged with a fine line of silver, while ‘Val Horncastle’ is a delightful primrose yellow. .
‘Captain Blood’ is a dark crimson and ‘Ken Dearman’ a highly floriferous mottled orange.
All primroses, like their single ancestors who grow in meadows, don’t mind being overlaid by other plants later in the season, as long as the gardener doesn’t forget about them. Rare and precious ones should be divided and replanted in a new location at least every two years. August or September is the recommended time, but I prefer to tackle mine as soon after flowering as possible. This gives them a good head start for the following season and guarantees a repeat performance in the autumn.
They also make very successful pot plants, but are far better grown in loam-based rather than peat or coir compost which can dry out rapidly during the summer and soon lose their nutrients.
At Lea Gardens we compost stripped turf, stacked green-on-green, brown-on-brown, and covered in black polythene to stop weeds seeding into it. After two years it is transformed into the best potting medium I know. For primroses I add a bit of lime or peat ash, and a handful of old, well-rotted horse manure.
Now and again, a deviant can be found amongst a patch of wild Primula vulgaris. The late Peggy Ramsay dug up a pink-flowered seedling not far from her home in Cunningsburgh and presented me with a division. It has the vigour of its wild ancestors and its colour is a rather indeterminate, chalky pink close-up. Viewed from a distance it shines and glows and reminds me of my much missed gardening friend each May.
Some of my original collection has now been restored, and the first to be replaced was dark-leaved ‘Garryarde Guinevere’.