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
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