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PRIM­ROSES are one of the joys of Easter. Prim­ula vul­garis grows al­most any­where in Scot­land – in hedgerows, at the edges of wood­land, on coastal cliffs and slopes. The bank below my or­chard is car­peted with a mass of these cheery lemon stars.

The beau­ti­ful na­tive prim­roses, in­clud­ing their cul­ti­vated va­ri­eties, have be­come essential for most gar­dens, as have polyan­thus, with sev­eral flowers on a sin­gle stem. These plants hy­bridise so freely that breed­ers have de­vel­oped an end­less range of colours and dou­bles.

Al­though some gar­den­ers treat prim­roses as an­nu­als, they are known to live for a long time. The botanist Ge­orge Peterken noted this at the end of a two-decade-long study. In 1993, he iden­ti­fied 37 in­di­vid­ual clumps of P vul­garis grow­ing in a nearby wood and 21 years later found 16 were still alive.

Prim­u­las form clumps, with the cen­tral plant pro­duc­ing clones: as the orig­i­nal plant weak­ens, its pe­riph­eral clones grow out­wards and, in turn, prop­a­gate clones that are iden­ti­cal to the orig­i­nal. Many prim­u­las, from P den­tic­u­lata, the drum­stick prim­ula, to P florindae, the tallest species, spread and clump this way.

The clone-form­ing process raises the ques­tion: what is an in­di­vid­ual plant? We nor­mally per­ceive plants be­hav­ing like us – grow­ing from seed, living, set­ting seed then dy­ing. But, if a plant gen­er­ates ge­net­i­cally- iden­ti­cal clones, does it ever die, as is suggested by many sci­en­tists?

We all know about an­cient oaks living for cen­turies, but clone-form­ing plants can be just as ven­er­a­ble. Sci­en­tists have iden­ti­fied a lily of the val­ley, Con­va­l­laria ma­jalis, grow­ing in south­ern Fin­land and they es­ti­mate it has a di­am­e­ter of 850m and that it is at least 670 years old.

When prop­a­gat­ing prim­roses, the usual method is to di­vide an of­ten con­gested clump into sev­eral plants. The clones are both part of the greater plant and sep­a­rate plants, with their own root system, crown and tuft of leaves.

You can di­vide prim­roses im­me­di­ately af­ter flow­er­ing or in the au­tumn. Most prim­u­las need moist or even boggy ground, so gar­den­ers south of the bor­der di­vide them in the au­tumn rather than be­fore a hot sum­mer. We sel­dom have that prob­lem so I pre­fer to di­vide in May.

Af­ter lift­ing a clump, you can eas­ily iden­tify the in­di­vid­ual plants within. Shake off loose soil and tease the roots, re­plant­ing the larger crowns. Trim roots to around 10cm and re­move large leaves. Soak the roots for sev­eral hours and plant them in damp, fer­tile soil. Dis­card the old woody plants from the mid­dle.

As a rule, prim­u­las are tough. I have even lifted and moved a clump burst­ing into flower be­cause it was the wrong colour for a bed. And, against the odds, prim­u­las some­times sur­vive in dry, gritty soil, as they did for the great plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll when she grew a spe­cial polyan­thus in her gar­den at Mun­stead Wood in Sur­rey.

Jekyll lifted and di­vided the plants ev­ery year, in­stead of the usual two or three. When in Home and Gar­den (1899) she de­scribes her role in the pro­ceed­ings, she tells us she sat on a low stool for two days, where a boy “feeds me with arm­fuls of newly-dug up plants, two men are dig­ging-in the cow-dung at the far end, and an­other car­ries away the plants, tray by tray and care­fully re­plants them”.

Prim­u­las nat­u­rally spread veg­e­ta­tively and are poor seed dis­persers be­cause their large seeds drop close to the par­ent plants. Ants, ro­dents and pos­si­bly slugs do ad­mit­tedly spread them a lit­tle wider. But it’s tricky get­ting ma­ture seed to ger­mi­nate, so di­vid­ing is the best ap­proach.


Prim­u­las are hardy but tend to be poor seed dis­persers, spread­ing veg­e­ta­tively in­stead

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