04 Feb A Primrose Primer: Caring for a Collection of Early Bloomers
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.