Spring primroses

Forms of our native primrose offer a captivating seasonal display.

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Vying with the snowdrop and bluebell to be the nation’s iconic flower of spring, the primrose, Primula vulgaris, must rate as one of the most beautiful flowers of our woodlands and hedgerows, a potent harbinger that spring has finally begun. It has long enchanted gardeners too and this humble perennial is given pride of place in less intensively cultivated spaces.

The species is widespread throughout Europe, where it inhabits moist meadows and woodland margins. With such a wide distribution, it is unsurprising there are geographical variants, such as the variety sibthorpii from the Crimea and Black Sea region with pink, red or purple flowers, equally at home in the garden. A white flowered form also grows on the Balearic Islands. Different flower structures have also been selected from the wild since Elizabethan times, and Hose in-Hose, where one flower erupts from the one behind and Jack-in-the-Green, where leaves produce a ruff behind the blossoms are two of the most distinct.

Gold Laced polyanthus, (from hybrids between P. vulgaris and cowslip P. veris) appeared during the 16th century, and were popularised by enthusiasts in the 18th and early 19th century. Double flowered forms also became popular at this time, with some of most robust varieties surviving to charm gardeners today.

All the various forms of primrose are easy to grow, best in cool air and moist, but well-drained conditions in dappled sunlight to semi-shade. The wild and fertile species will self-sow to create drifts of new plants. If self-seeding isn’t required remove spent blossoms.  Specific varieties should be propagated vegetatively by lifting and dividing clumps in late summer and autumn. If divisions are small grow on the slips in a nursery bed or pots until large enough to replant. Dividing clumps every three to four years will help keep plants rejuvenated. Forking in compost around them will also help boost vigour.