Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
When you think of gardens in the spring, most people think of flowering bulbs like daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths. A flower that in my opinion deserves more attention is the primrose.
I first took notice of primroses in high school, when my interest in gardening was developing its own flavor, independent of what my parents wanted to grow, or thought was worth growing. I grew up learning a lot about vegetable gardening, a little about annual flowers, but not very much about perennials or herbs.
So I read all that I could about perennials and herbs. I took stacks of books home with me from the local library. I made lists. I sent away for catalogs. I begged permission to grow a "few" things in the family vegetable garden. I saved any container remotely suitable for starting seeds in. Not having a checking account of my own to use for orders from seed catalogs, I pleaded with my mom to have her write me a check or use her credit card in exchange for my hard-earned babysitting money.
I took notice of what the neighbors had in their gardens. In early spring I noticed the usual cast of characters in our next-door neighbor's garden–grape hyacinths, daffodils, tulips all turning their colorful heads toward the sun. Then one day a swath of magenta low on the ground caught my eye.
The next time I saw my neighbor out in her garden, I asked her about the magenta flowers. She told me they were primroses, she had planted them a few years' earlier, and they just kept coming back. I was intrigued.
It's funny how something can be all around you for years but you never notice it. I don't remember noticing my neighbor's primroses until my interest in gardening began to grow. In fact, I don't remember ever noticing primroses anywhere prior to that year.
When I started actually looking for primroses, I found quite a few. I had been impressed with the deep magenta blooms of my neighbor's primroses, but the rainbow of color that greeted me when I found primroses at my local garden center stopped me in my tracks.
Good thing they weren't expensive. My babysitting money went a long way in assembling a rainbow of primroses in my little garden at the edge of the family vegetable garden.
After that first year, I eagerly anticipated the return of my primroses the following spring. But they never came back. That was one of my first "major malfunctions" in gardening. I was not ready to give up though.
Being exceedingly stubborn, I bought more primroses. And I checked out more books from the library to figure out what went wrong.
Primroses are in the genus Primula, which includes up to 500 individual species. Often primroses are found listed in herb books, probably due to the fact that historically there have been a multitude of medicinal uses listed for these plants.
In their natural state, primroses are often found among woodland plants. They are native to temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere, but there are a few species native to Africa, Asia, and South America. Both the common name primrose and genus name Primula are derived from their tendency to be among the first, or "prime" flowers to bloom after a long dreary winter.
My big mistake in my first attempt to grow primroses was failing to maintain the "woodland" conditions during the hot summer. Being woodland plants, primroses typically prefer semi-shade or filtered sunlight. Primroses not only prefer semi-shade, they also prefer moist but well-drained soil.
In nature, primroses are usually found in the deciduous forest, so as the trees leaf out, their dappled shade shields the primroses from the harsh sun. I had my primroses in a nice semi-shaded spot, but I didn't make sure they stayed well-watered in the heat of the summer. Primroses tend to be relatively shallow-rooted, so they don't have a lot of ability to search for moisture if it's not readily available. Keeping plants well-mulched helps conserve moisture. Knowing this it's no shock that my first primroses never survived. It wasn't that they didn't survive the winter–they were toast from the heat of the summer!
There are literally thousands of primroses available when you count all the different hybrids in addition to the 500 species. It's hard to pin down the exact identity of primroses available locally – sometimes ones I've purchased are just identified as 'primrose', the common name.
The lack of a proper Latin name may bother some gardeners, but to me the more important word to look for on a primrose's tag is 'perennial'. Occasionally you may find primroses for sale along with flowering houseplants such as African violets, especially in the early spring. Unless labeled 'perennial', these primroses may not be hardy outdoors.
Of course, that's not to say you shouldn't try to grow them outdoors. Growing primroses indoors can be very difficult. Typically they will develop root rot and attract pests indoors. Plus they can be very difficult to bring back into flower when grown solely indoors. Several houseplant guides I checked categorize primrose as a 'gift' plant that should be discarded after the blooms fade. I'd rather take a chance and plant the primrose outside than just throw it away.
If the early spring flowers don't convince you, the colors of primroses will convince you to try growing a few. They really do come in a rainbow of colors: red, orange, yellow, pink, purple, blue, white and combinations of two or more colors. I am a complete sucker for a primrose in a color combination that I don't currently have.
I tried to stick to a few primroses in a few colors at my house, but my willpower faded. I only have one small semi-shady area in my shade-deficient yard, and I couldn't resist putting "just a few more" primroses there.