New plants

Primroses – the skill of taking a simple thing and making it complicated

The simple delight of wild primroses in spring either in woods or on roadside verges is hard to beat, especially as they become a rarer sight. Cowslips (Primula veris) and oxlips (Primula elatior) look similar, bearing their clusters of flowers at the top of strong stems, while the woodland primrose (Primula vulgaris, also known as Primula acaulis) carries it’s slightly larger blooms on individual slim stems. Then there are polyanthus, which are also primroses (Primula polyanthus). Thought to be a cross between all three of the species mentioned, they have a rosette of leaves and strong stems holding clusters of flowers that are much larger than the flowers of either cowslips or oxlips.

You don’t have to hunt for them in the wild because of course primroses and polyanthus are one of the most popular of the spring garden plants, too, although many years of breeding has led to some highly coloured, sometimes huge flowered varieties that seem to owe little apart from their basic flower shape to their simple origins. Colour ranges romp over the rainbow and some flower patterns seem to come from the zoo.

Primula ‘Blue Zebra’ or ‘Zebra Blue’

From the early breeding carried out by Barnhaven primroses (originally in the USA although the company has since changed hands and is now based in France) to the constantly updated ranges sold in garden centres and online, primroses have been taken to extremes of size and colour and now, increasingly, back again to something more similar to their wild origins as tastes have changed over the decades.

The amount of work that goes into breeding primroses and the number and diversity of the different series and individual varieties now available reflects how many are sold. The pictures below should give you some idea of the scale of the market, especially when I tell you that all the different varieties you can see there represents the range being offered by only one wholesale company, and that this photo only shows about half of the greenhouse that was filled with plants for their open days (held for the buyers of garden centre and online retailers to see the range and decide what to stock).

There are primroses to suit all tastes and, as I mentioned, increasingly those tastes are returning to the simple charms of the wild primroses – but with one or two tweaks. The variety that seems to epitomise this more than any other I’ve come across is Primula ‘Everlast’, in the picture below. On the face of it ‘Everlast’ is hard to tell from a native woodland primrose, but there are some significant differences. It has tremendous flower power, producing far more flowers than a wild plant. It also starts flowering earlier, in late autumn and carries on flowering, possibly with one or two lulls when the winter weather is really cold, until early summer.

Primula ‘Everlast’

Another range I’ve found successful, with good staying power and a nice range of flower colours, was bred in Ireland. Kennedy Irish Primroses have distinctive dark green-bronze leaves and modestly-sized flowers in shades of apricot, yellow, red and pink. The pictures show ‘Dark Rosaleen’ (a polyanthus as you’ll immediately spot from the way the flowers are in clusters on a stem) and ‘Innisfree’ (an acaulis type of primrose with flowers on individual stems)

But arguably the most significant recent series of primroses (and probably my favourite) was bred in Cambridgeshire. David Kerley, who has also bred some of the most successful double Petunias including the well-known Tumbelina Pricilla (named after his wife), has produced a fabulous range of double primroses called Belarina. These combine beauty with toughness and they grow well in borders or pots. Kerly & Co is a family business involving David, Priscilla, their son Tim and his wife Sarah. Priscilla’s hands can be seen holding a brush with which she’s cross pollinating flowers in the pic below, and you’ll see that each stem is labelled with the name of the male parent variety the pollen was taken from.

The seeds resulting from the cross are sown and the plants grown on until they flower which, as you can see in the second picture, results in quite a mixture of blooms. All of these plants will be inspected to see how close they are to the plants they were aiming to get when making the crosses. As gardeners we might focus on the flower colour and shape but the breeder will be looking at many different criteria. The shape of the plant, the size and shape of the leaves, whether the flowers are held above the leaves and if so, how far above, how the flowers are held on stems etc. Later on they’ll need to find out how well they grow in different conditions and how easy they are to propagate. All these factors will affect whether wholesale growers can see a market for a particular variety. From this mass of colour only the most promising plants will be chosen to carry on the process, the rest will be thrown away.

In the pictures below you can see some of the many fantastic Belarina primulas. The dark red one is called ‘Valentine’, then there are two pictures of ‘Nectarine’, then ‘Cream’, ‘Buttercup’ (each flower nestling in a collar of leaves) and ‘Amethyst Ice’. There are many more.

You can buy flowering primroses in the spring in garden centres, but most online companies sell them in the autumn and are out of stock at the moment. Planting in the autumn gives the plants a chance to settle in and grow some more roots before the winter sets in, which will help them give a better display the following spring. Whenever you buy them you can grow them in pots or in the ground, although if you do opt for some of the very large flowered varieties they usually need some shelter from the worst of the weather because those big blooms don’t stand up well to heavy rain or frosts.

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