Primrose

A Primrose Primer: Caring for a Collection of Early Bloomers

Photos by Ryan Benoit

Who has experience growing primroses? We’re new to the primrose party, but here’s an early observation: They are thirsty beauties.

Housed in the Primula genus, the primrose is a perennial semi-evergreen native to northern Africa and southwestern Asia. You’ll also see them growing wild throughout Europe, from the British Isles to Bulgaria.

Primrose

Most primroses bloom in charming clusters. On a primrose plant, there are two types of flowers: thrum blossoms and pin blossoms. Here’s the botanical explanation; but at a glance, a pin blossom displays a disc at its center, which is its stigma. A thrum-eyed flower has anthers massed together in a button shape.

The name primrose comes from the Latin prima rosa meaning “first rose.” That said, the primrose is not closely related to the rose-rose we all know from the Rosa genus. Nor is it to the evening primrose (Oenothera). Nor to the Streptocarpus cape primrose that grows in southern regions of Africa. But Primrose is the given name of Katniss Everdeen’s little sister Prim in The Hunger Games, so there is that.

The plant’s habit of being among the first to bloom in the late winter/early spring helps to explain the name. In European forests, you’ll see these darlings popping up next to the daffodils even as you think that it’s still too cold out to function — let alone to put on your best contrasting neons. Wicked March winds? This plant volunteers as tribute.

Meanwhile, a winter-flowering anything will temporarily hypnotize us two native East Coasters.

Primrose

This past month our local nursery, Walter Andersen, exploded with color options. This year primroses caught our attention although we also brought home some calendula, poppies and pansies.

Primrose

Design challenge: Ten 5-inch pots, ten primrose hybrids and 67 cinderblocks.

You might have seen this first on our Instagram. The hybrids have irresistible names like ‘Supernova Fire’ and ‘Pioneer Apple Blossom.’

Primrose

The fluttery, lightly scented blooms create a thrilling contrast to the industrial lines of cinderblock.

Primrose

Of course, here in coastal Southern California, we get our primrose fix a few months earlier. We picked up 10 plants from our local nursery — plus some fabulously understated terra cotta pots to put them in — two weeks ago. The compact size and playfulness of the plants invited some experimentation with our artsy cinderblock installation. We potted and placed. And repeated.

The whole thing began looking pretty fabulous. But then, when we forgot to water our primroses for three days, something…something bad happened.

Primrose

We’re working nine-, ten-hour days, okay? The plants in our garden that need more water rely on timed irrigation systems. Meanwhile, our drought-tolerant plants we might water once a month. Some of our favorite houseplants (like zamioculcas) favor soil that dries out between waterings, especially during the winter. Primroses, on the other hand, need to have consistently moist soil. So if you plan on bringing this plant home, be sure to keep its hydration needs in mind.

Fortunately, primroses are also forgiving. We were able to bring our droopy primroses back to life with good watering. The next day, they were up and at ’em:

Primrose

‘Brooklyn Bride’ (whatta name!) and ‘Supernova Blue.’

Primrose

Due to our day jobs and the early sunsets, we sometimes water at night. Directing the moisture at the soil will keep water off the leaves, helping prevent mold and other damp annoyances.

Care Notes

Zones: depends on species/cultivar/hybrid. The Garden Helper has a useful roundup; many of these plants can thrive in USDA zones as cold as 5 and as warm as 10 when planted in the ground. Hardy primroses, like cowslip, can withstand just about the chilliest (–40 °F) zone 3 can throw their way. (Hold on to your hats: the frost turns foliage into robin’s egg velvet on this Primula ‘Arctic Blue.’)

Night temperatures in the 40s and daytime temps in the 60s and 70s have been kind to our own potted collection. Primroses tend to resent temps over 80. The plants are unlikely to survive the summer here, so ours will be an annual display.

Light: depends on hybrid or cultivar, but generally primroses prefer light, dappled shade and bright indirect sun. We have ours beneath the canopy of our large feijoa guava tree.

Soil: well-drained, amended with compost. We also added pumice for more aeration and healthier roots.

Containers: use 5 inch or larger containers with shallow saucers. Avoid deep saucers which leads to standing water in soil and root rot.

Watering: as stated earlier, water thoroughly to maintain soil moisture. We recommend watering once every other day. The smaller the container, the more frequently you’ll need to water.

Pruning: be diligent about pinching off dead leaves and spent blooms to keep your primroses looking proper.

—TH

Primrose

We potted our primrose in a healthy organic potting mix. We added additional pumice for aeration.

Pinch off faded blooms to help direct energy to new blooms.

Primrose

These plants clean up well. Clip off dying leaves to maintain the look of each plant.

Primrose

‘Pioneer Apple Blossom’ and ‘Supernova Red.’

Primrose

Primrose

‘Danessa Scarlet’ and a pink primrose whose name (and tag) escapes us…

 

Primrose

Primrose

 

 

 

 

  • Lisa

    Chiming in to say that with the recent rains, if my primula containers wind up with saucers full of water, the primulas mold and mildew like crazy. In addition to frequent watering, they need very good drainage.

    • Ay! Indeed primulas need soil with good drainage. We also recommend using shallow saucers (if outdoors) so the excess water can overflow.

  • Betsy

    I’ve seen Primrose do well for years in little pots. They’re fragrant and adorable. They make great desk plants. One thing to look out for: if the leaves start to yellow check the pH. Iron needs to be available for Primrose to be happy. A pH between 5.5 and 6.2 should be fine. If you’re there and still yellow consider supplementing iron.

    • Betsy, great to know about primrose working as desk plants. And a huge thank you for the excellent tip about pH!