Pret­ti­est prim­roses: plant these now for spring to help the bees

For cheer­ful flow­ers that bees will ap­pre­ci­ate too, make plant­ing this spring favourite top of your Septem­ber ‘to-do’ list, says Val Bourne

Amateur Gardening - - Contents -

NAMED ‘Flower of the 12 Gods’ (do­de­catheon) by the an­cient Greeks and be­lieved to have been a favourite of the 19th cen­tury Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Dis­raeli (to whose fu­neral Queen Vic­to­ria sent a wreath of them), the prim­rose is one of the flo­ral sig­ni­fiers of spring. How­ever it is in au­tumn that we should act if we want to en­joy their blooms next year. In fact, Septem­ber is the per­fect time to plant new prim­roses – and to di­vide es­tab­lished clumps – while the soil is still warm enough to en­cour­age new roots.

There are more than 400 species in the prim­rose (Prim­ula) genus, in­clud­ing the pop­u­lar polyan­thus, can­de­labra prim­roses, cowslips and au­ric­u­las. Most of the prim­roses we are talk­ing about here are hardy gar­den va­ri­eties de­rived from the wild prim­rose (Prim­ula vul­garis). This is a wood­land edge plant that en­joys dap­pled shade and moist soil, so it’s im­por­tant to give your prim­roses sim­i­lar con­di­tions in the gar­den.

Highly at­trac­tive to bees, prim­roses are eas­ily pol­li­nated thanks to the fact that they have two types of flow­ers on the same plant, some with prom­i­nent male parts (an­thers) and some with prom­i­nent fe­male parts (styles). Pollen is car­ried on the un­der­sides of vis­it­ing bees, who spread it from flower to flower, re­sult­ing in lots of dif­fer­ent and of­ten in­ter­est­ing off­spring.

Cen­turies of grow­ing

There are also ‘Hose in hose’ prim­roses, which have two flow­ers, one in­side the other, and have been prized since El­iz­a­bethan times. Other types in­clude ‘Jack­anapes’ (half leaf, half petal), ‘Jack in the pul­pits’, with flow­ers sur­rounded by a ruff of fo­liage, and gold-laced prim­u­las, which first ap­peared in 1820.

Mod­ern breed­ers have con­tin­ued the good work. Look for the You and Me Strain (Hose in hose), ‘Dawn Ansell’, a lovely cream-white ‘Jack in the pul­pits’, and Ir­ish breeder Joe Kennedy’s stun­ning dark-leaved prim­u­las, in­clud­ing the deep-red ‘In­n­is­free’ and the striped pink ‘Dark Ros­aleen’. Dark-leaved prim­roses are ul­tra hardy, and both of those have done well in my gar­den.

North Amer­i­can plant breed­ers have also pro­duced hardy, strongly coloured prim­roses and polyan­thas (char­ac­terised by mul­ti­ple flow­ers on one stem), plus colour­ful strains such as the Barn­havens and Cowichans. Many have evoca­tive names like ‘Fire­flies’ (a deep-red) and ‘Tango’ (deep gold and orange).

One of my favourite prim­u­las is the lime green ‘Fran­cisca’, which pro­duces its ragged-edged flow­ers much later than most. Re­sem­bling an 18th cen­tury lady in flounces and frills, it was spot­ted on a traf­fic is­land in Sur­rey, Bri­tish Columbia, by a Cana­dian gar­dener called Fran­cisca Darts. It seems to flower far longer than most and ex­tends its leaves in sum­mer, pro­vid­ing use­ful ground cover that helps keep out weeds and con­serve mois­ture.

Asian prim­u­las are more tricky. In their na­tive cli­mate they ben­e­fit from the rainy sea­son, a warm wet early sum­mer pe­riod

that lasts about six weeks. As a re­sult, they tend to thrive best in damp sit­u­a­tions in the western half of Bri­tain, where rain­fall is high­est. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, only gar­den­ers in wet­ter re­gions like Wales and the West Coun­try are likely to be able to grow these Hi­malayan and Asian beau­ties suc­cess­fully. If you are one of them, look out for the vivid orange-red ‘In­verewe’; named af­ter the Scot­tish High­lands gar­den bathed by the warm Gulf Stream, this beau­ti­ful can­del­bra prim­ula has whorls of deep red flow­ers. Hy­brids rarely set seed, and bulk up into good clumps as a re­sult.

Pick a polyan­thus

Also in the prim­rose fam­ily, Polyan­thus are a cross be­tween cowslips and prim­roses. These highly bred bed­ding plants look like larger ver­sions of prim­roses and tend to be treated as an­nu­als – to be en­joyed through win­ter and spring and dis­carded there­after. The win­ter-hardy ‘Crescendo’ se­ries is widely re­garded as the best for out­doors. They are def­i­nitely worth a try, but for my money you can’t beat prim­roses for a touch of class.

Wild prim­rose (P. vul­garis) is the par­ent plant of many of the gar­den va­ri­eties and hy­brids cur­rently avail­able. It flow­ers in late win­ter, light­ing up ar­eas of dap­pled shade Crescendo Blue is a good choice if you want a win­ter hardy, colour­ful polyan­thus that will per­form well out­doors

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