Horticulture Magazine

Primula ‘Primrose’ Plant Care & Growing Tips

close up of primula flowers in pink, red, white, purple and yellow

Primula Overview

Official Plant NamePrimula Vulgaris
Common Name(s)Primula ‘Primrose’
Plant TypePerennial Flower
Native AreaWest & Southern Europe
Hardiness RatingH7
ToxicityNone
FoliageSemi-evergreen
FlowersVarious colours – often yellow
When To SowMarch, April, September, October
Flowering MonthsJanuary, February, March, April, May
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun or Dappled Shade

Exposure
Sheltered

Size

Height
Up to 10cm

Spread
0 – 0.1M

Bloom Time
January – May

Soil

Preferred
Most Soil Types

Moisture
Moist but well drained

pH
Any

The Primrose, that voiceless herald of spring, is strongly identified with the United Kingdom. In reality, perhaps surprisingly, the Common Primrose is native to almost the whole of Europe and grows even further eastwards. An abundance of relatively new cultivar series means that Primroses are available in numerous colours in tones pastel and saturated, in double forms, and even in variegated tones. 

Spring just wouldn’t be complete without primroses in an English country garden – correction, in any English garden. Indeed, Primroses are so strongly identified with England that although Primula vulgaris is native to – besides the British Isles – most of Europe it is called ‘English Primrose’ all over the world. Its subspecies Primula vulgaris subsp. vulgaris, also known as Common Primrose, extends its native range to near Asia.

Primula is a genus in Family Primulaceae. This genus includes a surprising variety of flowering plants that include species originating in the Far-East and hybrids that look nothing like a primrose. The vast majority of Primula species are perennials, including deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen. Note that the well-known medicinal flowering plant Evening Primrose is not a member of Genus Primula though ‘Auriculas’ are. The number of species in this genus is a moving target because there are a great many unassessed and disputed species. As a result the number may be as low as 392 and as high as 926 but the best estimate falls between 425 and 450.

Primula Primrose too has been and still is a medicinal plant of much importance. All parts of the plant have curative properties; these include analgesic, relaxant, and antipyretic effects. Moreover, young leaves and flowers are edible and are used as herbs in country cooking. These are also used for making herbal teas while the flowers are fermented into another countryside beverage, Primrose wine.

bright yellow primrose flowers blooming in woodlands
A Picture-Perfect Stand of The Primrose – No Qualifiers Needed

Special Properties of Primroses

Both the English Primrose and the Common Primrose are so well-known and are such standard bearers for their genus that have lent their name to a colour – the soft, pale tone of yellow commonly called ‘Primrose’ on paint cans and swatches around the world. This being the case perhaps it is somewhat surprising that Primroses come in an astonishing variety of shades and hues, and even a few edged and striped varieties. Most of these flowers are showy, and many are fragrant and pull butterflies and bees.

Though Primrose flowers – like most flowers – are hermaphroditic, they exhibit heterostyly. That is, the flowers of one plant contain both sets of reproductive organs but the position and prominence of these organs differs so as to avoid self-pollination. Flowers in which the stamens are positioned prominently are called thrum flowers while those with the style positioned prominently are called pin flowers. Indeed, when heterostyly needs to be explained, Primrose flowers, particularly English Primrose flowers, are usually cited as examples.

Another recognisable visible property of Primula is that many plants of this genus form a basal rosette of stemless leaves. Most Primula varieties’ leaves themselves are very distinct, being deep but bright green, rather crinkled, and having a dentate margin. Another distinctive feature is that many varieties’ flower stalks are somewhat hairy. Plants of heights from 15 to 30 centimetres and a clumping habit are seen very frequently.

maroon and yellow coloured flowers of P. Gold Laced Group
The Eyecatching Blooms of P. Gold Laced Group (Polyanthus)

Background and Origins

Notwithstanding the strong association that the Primrose flower has with Great Britain and that Primrose development has with Europe and the Far East, these plants probably have their provenance in the Himalayas. In fact, about half of all species are clustered in and around the Himalayas. 

Primula Primrose cultivation got underway in Great Britain in the mid 1700s in a stop-start fashion until it finally took off as late as the late Nineteenth Century. Since then horticulturalists on three continents have been making up for lost time. They have created F1 hybrids with superior features, bred cultivars of the English Primrose in an array of colours, and developed various new series such as the Danova which includes two-toned varieties.

Hybrids and cultivars have been developed by crossing P. vulgaris, P. veris, P. elatior, and even more species.

Varieties

P. vulgaris or P. acaulis or ‘English Primrose’ – The ‘mother species’, so to speak, grows only up to 10 centimetres with a similar spread. The leaves are tongue-shaped and of a medium green hue. The open, salver-shaped flowers of 2.5 to 3.5 centimetres are a soft, pale yellow with a bright buttercup yellow eye.

A mutation has resulted in some plants bearing pink or purplish flowers of the same soft, pale tone as the standard yellow ones, and also whitish ones. Flowers bloom in spring and have a scent whose soothing gentleness matches that of their colour.

While the English Primrose is on the decline in East Anglia, it continues to thrive in the South-Western region, particularly Devon County. It is native to Europe but its population is declining all over Europe except in the United Kingdom. RHS Award of Garden Merit.

light purple english primrose flowers with green leaves
Pinkish-Purplish Flowers of a Mutant Strain of the English Primrose

Primula vulgaris subsp. vulgaris or ‘Common Primrose’ – The frequently-seen subspecies of the English Primrose differs from the species in being 20 to 40 centimetres tall and with a similar spread. The flowers, while similar and also scented, are also a little bigger. Finally, it starts to bloom a little earlier than the English Primrose, often in late winter. Even its range is bigger, covering most of Europe and extending to Southwestern Asia and the Northwestern sliver of Africa but this variety too is dwindling throughout its range except for the United Kingdom. RHS Award of Garden Merit.

P. vulgaris subsp. sibthorpii or Sibthorp Primrose – Another subspecies of P. vulgaris, it is 20 to 40 centimetres tall but with a spread of about 10 centimetres. The small 3-centimetre flowers are of a charming, soft lavender tone. Blooming in spring, it is found in a swath of land from Greece to Turkey. RHS Award of Garden Merit.

P. vulgaris ‘Dunbeg’ – This variant is similar to P. vulgaris with the difference that its foliage is a bronzed green with an ochreous tinge and the flowers being off-white or even pure white with a brilliant, deep yellow centre.

white P. vulgaris ‘Dunbeg’ flowers up close
The Classy and Sedate Tones of P. vulgaris ‘Dunbeg’

P. veris or Cowslip – The Cowslip plant has a basal rosette of leaves on short stalks over which a main stem rises to 20 to 30 centimetres. It bears an umbel of small, 1.5 centimetre bell-shaped flowers that are strongly scented and are of a deep, brilliant yellow hue. It is native to the United Kingdom, much of Europe and Western Asia. It blooms in mid and late spring. RHS Award of Garden Merit.

yellow cowslip flowers in focus
The Buttery Bells of Cowslip

P. florindae or Giant Cowslip – Much bigger than its diminutive namesake, this native of Tibet reaches a height of 1.2 metres. The large leaves are 20 to 40 centimetres long and even the stems are noticeably thicker. The flowers are a much bigger version of those borne by P. veris and are similarly coloured. However, they are more profuse, being 20 to 30 per umbel, and are even more strongly and sweetly scented. It blooms through the summer. RHS Award of Garden Merit.

Other species, less commonly found in British gardens, include P. parryi or Parry’s Primrose from the New World and Primula malacoides or the ‘Fairy Primrose’ from clear across the planet – the Indochina region. Notable and very pretty species from Japan and the Far-East include P. japonica or ‘Apple Blossom Primrose’ and P. sieboldii or the ‘Cherry Blossom Primrose.’ P. sieboldii extensively has been cultivated in Japan and a number of stunning cultivars have been developed.

As for the unusual P. denticulata, its colloquial name, ‘Drumstick Primula,’ is surely the more descriptive on account of its unusual ‘drumstick’ flowers. There is yet another such primrose, Primula ‘Inverewe’ or Candelabra Primrose which bears its vermilion flowers in a whorl not dissimilar from a candelabra. 

Drumstick Primula on a German postage stamp
Germany Celebrated the Drumstick Primula with a Postage Stamp.

Two Primrose series are worth a mention. The robust and popular Danova Series offers near year-round blooms in over 35 hues and shades. The lesser-known Belarina Series features unusual double form in rich, saturated hues.

Danova Series Primroses in yellow, red, pink, purple, white and blue
The Marvellous Colours of Danova Series Primroses

Two other varieties produce eye-catching ‘standard’ flowers but of similar rich, saturated hues. P. ‘Perle Von Bottrop’ has a creeping habit while P. ‘Crescendo Blue Shades’ attains a good height of 15 to 20 centimetres and its flowers are distinctly bigger than those of the former variety. Each produces gorgeous, intensely-coloured flowers, ‘Perle Von Bottrop’s being a magenta-purple and ‘Crescendo Blue Shades’s of a violet hue. Each plant’s flowers are accented with a brilliant yellow eye.

P. ‘Perle Von Bottrop’ flowers in deep pink
P. ‘Perle Von Bottrop’ Brings Splashes of Intense Colour

We close with three highly unusual varieties. With flowers strongly resembling those of the Southern African Kniphofia or ‘Red Hot Poker’ is P. vialii aka . . . ‘Red Hot Poker Primrose’! The flower is essentially a ‘hair curler’ of lilac from which emerges a central tip of ruby red. P. Gold Laced Group, one of the Polyanthus Primroses, presents stunning saucer-shaped flowers that are a startling crimson-to-black with a broad golden central disk and golden edging. Another Polyanthus is P. ‘Zebra Blue’ and it is true to its name as the stunning flower displays delicate blue-and-white striping and veining.

zebra blue primula flowers with blue, white and yellow colours
The ‘Zebra Blue’ – An Attention-Grabbing Talking Point in any Garden

Habitat and Growing Conditions

Moisture, shade, and cool temperatures – these three factors combine to make the ideal habitat for Primroses. Thus, these plants are very often found in and around damp woodlands close to bodies of water. And if there is one genus for which the virtually standard caution against heavy clay soils and wet soils can be dispensed with it, it is the English Primrose, Common Primrose, and most Primrose varieties, most particularly the Giant Cowslip. 

The majority of Primrose varieties prefers moist-to-damp soils, the only difference between the varieties being one of degree. There are exceptions to the rule, for example American natives such as P. parryi and P. cusickiana. Almost all varieties are somewhat acidophilic with the difference between varieties, again, being one of degree. Suitable pH for these plants ranges from 6.1 to 7.0. Rich humus- and compost-based soils are best for these plants.

Most Primrose species prefer shade or part shade, though there are exceptions, such as P. denticulata, whereas the newer cultivars and series, like the Belarinas, do better in part sun.

Primrose varieties’ USDA Hardiness Zones vary quite widely but most, including P. vulgaris and its subspecies, have a Hardiness Zone from 4 to 8. 

rose-like flowers of P. Belarina Series in deep red colour
The Rose-Like Double Forms of P. Belarina Series – P. Belarina ‘Valentine’

When and Where to Plant Primrose

Autumn and spring are the best seasons to grow Primroses by any method by which a particular variety can be grown (or planted or propagated). Seeds are best sown in late autumn, otherwise in early spring.

Dividing the plants or separating offsets is another method of propagation. Depending on the variety this is best done in spring, autumn, or either and both. For example, you should divide P. denticulata in spring but Belarina varieties in autumn.

Where you plant a Primrose plant depends fairly strongly on the particular variety. P. vulgaris and its subspecies are great for mass plantings, are suitable for rock gardens, for growing on verges and slopes, and even as a delightful groundcover. On the other hand, plants from the series that bear intensely-coloured and truly showy flowers, such as the Danova series and the Belarina series, are ideally suited as bedding display plants, for borders and edges, and as decorative container plants. As for the highly striking varieties like Perle von Bottrop, Zebra Blue, and Gold-Laced Group, these can be grown and displayed as true specimen plants in their own rights. 

Feeding, Care and Growing Tips

All Primula Primrose seeds may be sown in trays or pots to start off indoors. Species seeds can be sown outdoors as well but seeds of cultivars and series are better germinated in trays or pots indoors and then transplanted outdoors. 

Lightly press seeds into soil without covering them. Ensure that seeds get sufficient light indoors otherwise germination will be affected. Temperatures between 15° and 20° Centigrade are most suitable for germinating Primroses. Space plants at a distance that matches the particular variety’s ultimate spread.

A very good soil in which to grow the vast majority of Primroses in would be a Slightly Acidic fertile clay-based loam with humus and peat moss. It should be kept moist and especially so in hot or dry weather. As opposed to the species, particularly Cowslips, Primrose cultivars and series should be planted in soils with very good drainage.

Primroses are known as shade-loving plants and in the main this is true. They will grow well in partial shade and dappled sunlight. However, some varieties tend to one or another extreme. For instance, Perle von Bottrop prefers part shade to full shade whereas Giant Cowslip prefers part sun to full sun. Most mature plants will do very well in temperatures between 12.5° and 25° Centigrade.

Primroses do not need fertiliser in British conditions particularly if the soil is rich, organic, and is amended with humus or organic manure. That said, cultivars and series varieties will benefit from fertilising. You can fertilise once every fortnight from the start to the close of blooming season. Do so by lightly sprinkling 5-10-5 fertiliser at the base of the plant.

Popular Danova Series in a green plastic pot
Popular Danova Series Primroses are Easy to Grow

Common Diseases and Problems

As Primula Primrose varieties are so numerous and disparate, their resistance or susceptibility to pests varies quite widely. Though they are healthy plants in general, quite a number of pests may attack them. These include slugs, aphids, vine weevil, eelworms, leafhoppers and glasshouse red spider mite.

The diseases that can affect these plants are primula brown core, grey mould, and leaf spot.

Where to Buy Primrose

Primroses are among the most easily found of plants, and this holds true for a large number of species, hybrids, and cultivars. These are widely available in containers at nurseries and quite a few are available by mail in bare root form as well as in pots.

Seeds of Primrose species and several series and varieties are also commonly found at garden centres as well as online retailers.

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