In The Garden
Charles Quest-ritson falls back in love with alpine primulas
MANY years ago, we had a National Collection of Primulas that we assembled under the auspices of Plant Heritage, an august horticultural organisation that was, at that time, called the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG). We enjoyed making the collection enormously and the generosity of our fellow enthusiasts was immensely cockle-warming.
Our primula collection was limited to European species and cultivars, but they turned out to be legion. My main interest centred on the Vernales section of the genus Primula, which includes our native primroses, cowslips and oxlips. I raised thousands of their hybrid seedlings; some were the result of deliberate crosses, but most of them were open-pollinated foundlings freely produced by this most promiscuous of garden flowers.
I had it in mind that, by crossing super-hardy species such as the Alpine oxlip P. elatior with the Caucasian P. juliae, I might breed a garden-worthy strain that would flourish in such climates as Ontario and the American Midwest and so make my fortune.
The NCCPG was keen that its collection holders should study their plants and make their own contribution to horticultural literature. We soon discovered, however, that so many brilliant botanists and gardeners had worked with the genus that we’d never be able to add to the existing corpus of knowledge.
We were greatly helped by my run of old Alpine Garden Society Journals, which stretches back to the post-second World War years in which plant-hunters were keen to tell their readers exactly where they had found the rare plants that they described. As a result, it was easy for us to run them to earth in the Alpine regions where they occur in nature.
I remember finding Primula marginata all over the Roya valley in the Alpes-maritimes and a memorable day in early March when William Waterfield took Chris Brickell and me on a long hike to find P. allionii flowering at a height at which we could photograph it. Then there were happy meetings with the ubiquitous P. hirsuta and its rarer relative P. pedemontana when the snows melted and the skiing resorts of Savoy seemed derelict and abandoned.
We hunted for other species all through the Alpine ranges until we came to the diminutive P. minima in the Tatra Mountains. We never dug them up, nor were we even tempted to do so, because the many botanic institutes that run Alpine gardens in France, Switzerland and Italy were so generous in sending us seeds and plants.
We grew our Alpine primulas in an unheated greenhouse—cold but dry, as winter wet is their undoing—and it was a great joy to go into the glasshouse on a sunny day in February and March to admire not just their rich colours, but also the size of their flowers in relation to the rest of the plant.
Something none of the books and articles on primulas ever mentioned was what a strong scent they have, different from that of primroses and cowslips, but no less sweet. Alas, we did not know about vine weevils in those days; one year, we lost almost all our pots. This disaster, the result of our ignorance, dented our confidence so completely that we decided not to rebuild our collection.
Alpine primulas are not as widely grown as they used to be. Ambitious plantsmen nowadays fill their unheated glasshouses with difficult plants from South America such as rosulate violas and unnamed species of Nototriche, but I have a hankering still for our European primulas, their brave early flowering, their simple, cheerful beauty and that delicious scent. Changes of fashion are one of the main reasons why good plants became rare or even completely lost to cultivation, so now, perhaps, is the right time to start a new collection. The insecticide Provado Vine Weevil Killer will protect us from weevils.
As for the Vernales primulas, we have already discovered that primroses and cowslips flourish in the chalk downland that we call our garden and their promiscuity remains unabated. Perhaps if I add some of the rarer species such as the super-floriferous, mauve P. megaseifolia and the dainty, droopy P. grandis, I may yet produce new strains of immortal beauty, but I don’t expect them to make my fortune.
‘Something none of the books mentioned was their scent
Purple patch: Primula marginata, or the silver-edged primrose, is one of the earliest of the species to bloom in the spring