Primulas and Primroses: Beautiful Spring Flowers

A red polyanthus primrose
A red polyanthus primrose | Source

The Joys of Spring

One of the joys of spring is the appearance of beautiful primulas and primroses in gardens, containers, landscaped areas - and if you live in the right part of the world - in the wild.

In the UK, the English primrose is one of the first plants to flower in the spring. It has lovely pale yellow flowers that have a darker yellow centre. Many of the primrose's cultivated relatives also flower in the spring. They come in a huge variety of colours and forms and are very popular.

Some people might argue that some of the colours of cultivated primulas and primroses are too vivid, unnatural, and even garish, especially compared to the delicate hues of the English primrose. I think that the cultivated flowers are a beautiful sight, though. Where I live there are lots of evergreen plants, but the predominant colours of nature in winter are green and brown. It's so nice to see the cheerful flowers of primrose relatives in the spring.

A blue polyanthus primrose
A blue polyanthus primrose | Source

The Primula Genus

It's helpful to understand the terminology used to describe primulas, primroses and their relatives, since it can be confusing. Many hybrids have formed between the different types, which adds to the confusion.

Every living thing has both a common name and a scientific name. The scientific name consists of two words and is written in italics. The first word in the name is the genus and is capitalized. The second word is the species. For example, Primula vulgaris is the scientific name for the English primrose and Primula veris is the scientific name for the cowslip.

The common name "primula" is sometimes used to refer to all species in the Primula genus. Some flower groups in the genus are often referred to by their own common name, however. Four of these groups are the primroses, the polyanthus primroses, the auriculas and the cowslips. Some people drop the word polyanthus from the term "polyanthus primroses", creating a wider meaning for the word primrose. Others drop the word primrose from the term.

Some plants with the word primrose in their common name aren't members of the Primula genus. An example is the evening primrose, which belongs to the genus Oenothera.

The English or common primrose
The English or common primrose | Source

The English or Common Primrose

The primrose in the UK is sometimes known as the English or common primrose to distinguish it from other species of wild primroses. It's native to western and southern Europe and is found in hedgerows and open woodland. The "prim" in primrose comes from a Latin word meaning "first", which refers to the fact that primroses flower early in the year before many other plants.

Primrose leaves have a prominent midrib and a crinkled appearance. They form a basal rosette that lies close to the ground. The flowers emerge from the rosette on short stems and have five notched petals. Most primroses have yellow flowers, but the flower exists in a pink form as well.

The flowers and leaves of primroses are edible. They are eaten in salads and are also used to make a tea and a wine. However, in the UK it's now illegal to pick wild primroses or dig them up.

Varieties of the English primrose are sold by nurseries, so even people outside Europe can enjoy them if they have a suitable habitat and climate. Primroses and their relatives are perennials.

A pink subpecies of the common primrose
A pink subpecies of the common primrose | Source
A pin-eyed yellow primula
A pin-eyed yellow primula | Source

Pin and Thrum-Eyed Flowers

The primrose has two types of flowers - pin-eyed and thrum-eyed. In pin-eyed flowers, the stigma (the top of the female reproductive organ, or pistil) is visible in the opening at the centre of the flower. It looks like a flat, green or yellow disk. In thumb-eyed flowers the anthers (the tops of the male reproductive organs, or stamens) are visible in the centre. The anthers look like long, greenish-yellow sacs.

Each type of primrose flower has both the female and the male organs; the only difference is the length of each organ. In nature, fertilization takes place between a pin-eyed flower and a thrum-eyed flower but not between flowers of the same type. Many primrose relatives have pin-eyed and thrum-eyed flowers.

 A thrum-eyed polyanthus primrose
A thrum-eyed polyanthus primrose | Source

Growing Cultivated Primulas

Cultivated primulas are derived from the wild species that grow in several European countries. Many are hybrids between different species. They come in a wide range of colours, patterns, sizes and forms and often have more than five petals. Some even have multiple rows of petals. Many primulas have a pleasant scent.

Since there are so many different types of cultivated primulas, it's important for gardeners to check the growing requirements of the specific varieties that they buy. In general, the plants need rich soil which has a neutral pH or is slightly acidic. The soil should be moist but should also have good drainage. Soil containing humus and compost is best. Most plants grow well in a moderately cool environment with partial shade, but some varieties grow well in full sun. I've found the plants easy to grow in the mild climate where I live. Some types of primulas will grow in containers under the right conditions.

A colourful group of cultivated primulas
A colourful group of cultivated primulas | Source

In the United States, many primulas will grow successfully in zones 5 to 9 on the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Plant Hardiness Zone Map. This isn't true for all primulas, however, so the hardiness zone should be checked when buying a plant.

Garden and Wild Primulas

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A white primulaPrimula denticulataAnother primulaThe oxlip (Primula elatior) is a wildflower.Primula clusiana is a wildflower.
A white primula
A white primula | Source
Primula denticulata
Primula denticulata | Source
Another primula
Another primula | Source
The oxlip (Primula elatior) is a wildflower.
The oxlip (Primula elatior) is a wildflower. | Source
Primula clusiana is a wildflower.
Primula clusiana is a wildflower. | Source

Planting Primulas

Primulas can be grown from seeds, but like many people I buy them in pots and then transplant them. It's hard to resist buying a new plant when they are on display outside supermarkets in my neighbourhood. The goal of the colourful flower displays is to attract shoppers as they are about to enter the store. The trick certainly works on me. The garden centre near my home also sells interesting varieties of primulas.

I do grow some types of plants from seeds. The process is often more economical than buying bedding plants. Another advantage is that it's often possible to get a wider variety of plants via seeds than via bedding plants. In addition, there's something magical about seeing the first tiny leaves of a new plant emerging from the soil. It's hard or time consuming to get certain seeds to germinate, though.

Primula seeds take about three weeks to germinate. The American Primrose Society link at the end of this article has instructions for growing primulas from seed for people who would like to try the process.

A pink polyanthus primrose
A pink polyanthus primrose | Source

Dividing a Mature Primula

When a primula plant has formed a clump of leaves after a few years of growth, it's sometimes divided into multiple plants. This usually improves its blooming ability. Some people divide the plant in spring while others do it in early fall. I've never tried dividing a primula myself, but the process seems to be quite easy.

The first step in division is to carefully dig around the plant and remove it from the soil with its roots as intact as possible. The plant is then gently teased into two or more plants by hand. The biggest leaves and any dead flowers are removed from each of the new plants and the roots are trimmed. The plants are then placed in the soil. The process is shown in the video below.

How to Divide and Grow Primroses

Auriculas

Auriculas are cultivated flowers that frequently have an interesting and colourful pattern on their petals. It's often hard to recognize that they are a type of Primula. They were originally produced as a hybrid between two wildflowers - Primula auricula and Primula hirsuta. Today there are many different cultivars of auricula. A "cultivar" is a plant variety produced by selective breeding.

Auriculas are perennial and evergreen plants. Their fleshy leaves have no stem and are arranged in a rosette close to the ground. The leaves sometimes have a powdery white coating. The large flowers are born in a group which is positioned at the top of a tall flower stem.

Wild auriculas grow in an alpine habitat. They are sometimes known as mountain cowslips or bear's ear. The latter name comes from the shape of the leaves. The visible part of the ear in bears, humans and other mammals is often referred to as the auricle. This fact may have given the auricula its species name.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A cultivated auricula originally produced by a cross between a wild Primula auricula and another species of the genusA wild auricula (Primula auricula)
A cultivated auricula originally produced by a cross between a wild Primula auricula and another species of the genus
A cultivated auricula originally produced by a cross between a wild Primula auricula and another species of the genus | Source
A wild auricula (Primula auricula)
A wild auricula (Primula auricula) | Source

Spring Care of Auriculas

Cowslips

The cowslip is a wild primula that bears a group of small, funnel-shaped flowers at the top of a tall flower stem. The flowers are usually yellow with orange spots near their centre, but they are occasionally red. The plant is native to Europe and Asia.

It's been suggested that the name "cowslip" originated from the plant's ability to grow in soil that is seasonally boggy and slippery. However, it also grows in drier areas, include pastures and grasslands. Another theory is that the name refers to the cow dung in places where the cowslip grows. The plant inhabits areas that are less shaded than primrose habitats.

The cowslip population in the UK decreased dramatically between the 1950s and 1980s, mainly due to intensive farming and herbicide use. Happily, the population is making a comeback.

As is the case for the primrose, cowslip leaves are used for salad greens. The flowers are used in wines and vinegars. They have a delightful fragrance that is used in the perfume industry. There are cultivated forms of cowslip available for gardens.

The cowslip
The cowslip | Source

Attractive Garden Plants

There are so many varieties of Primula available in nurseries that gardeners will almost certainly find at least one flower that appeals to them. The plants aren't hard to grow, although some types are more demanding than others. Primulas and primroses are attractive and delightful plants that add a beautiful splash of colour to a garden or a container. I always look forward to seeing them in bloom.

Further Information

The American Primrose Society website contains useful information for primula lovers. The full name of the society is the American Primrose, Primula and Auricula Society.

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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Comments 38 comments

Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 3 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for this. In my yard, a colorful trouble free plant.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit and for sharing your experience with Primulas, Martin.


joanveronica profile image

joanveronica 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

Hi there, what a beautiful selection! I love flowers, and these photos show the primulas at their best. For you, Spring has arrived, we on the other hand have started Fall, so will have to wait for flowers like these! Voted up, and more, also shared. Have a good day!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the votes and the share, Joan! Fall can be a lovely time of year. It has its own beauty. I hope you enjoy the season!


Imogen French profile image

Imogen French 3 years ago from Southwest England

Very pretty, AliciaC. I love the English wild primroses, they look so delicate, and are a reassuring sign of spring. The cultivated primula are beautiful too, and bring a lovely early splash of colour to the garden. Nice hub :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment, Imogen. Primroses and their cultivated relatives are lovely flowers. I miss seeing primroses in the wild. I remember seeing a huge crowd of them in a wood when I was a child in Wales. It was a wonderful sight!


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

Photos are very vivid and really add to your overall message. Lovely flowers.


kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 3 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi my friend, love this very awesome and colorful article it is so well written and informative. One year i did grow primroses in my yard, they are so beautiful .

Vote up and more !!! Sharing !


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, FlourishAnyway. It's fun to photograph primrose relatives. They are such lovely flowers!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Tom. Thank you very much for the votes and the share! I love Primulas. They have such beautiful flowers.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

Just what I needed to see with all the horrible weather that we are getting, they are just beautiful, all the color I just can't wait to start seeing ours growing, I am a sweet pea nut, we have them all over our balcony in the summer, and the smell is gorgeous, nell


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment, Nell. I love sweet peas too. There are so many lovely garden flowers to choose from today!


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

Wow, what a way to give spring a nice little kickstart!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Deb. Yes, these flowers do make a great start to spring! It's lovely to see all the different colors and patterns.


rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

Very interesting. Around here, we usually favor the pastel shades for spring flowers and save the vibrant colors for fall. But this year, I have seen some vividly colorful pansy-like flowers used in spring landscaping. Beautiful Hub, voted so, and shared!


sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 3 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

Such beautiful flowers! I have tried to grow primrose here, but I think the summers here in southern Oklahoma are just too hot. I may have to give it another try to keep them in a more shaded area. Beautiful hub! Voted up, useful, interesting and beautiful! I would like to share this on my Flower Garden blog, if I may. Have a beautiful day! :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the vote and the share, Rebecca. I appreciate your visit and comment!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment and votes and for sharing this hub on your blog, sgbrown! I hope you have good luck if you try to grow primroses again.


drbj profile image

drbj 3 years ago from south Florida

Now, thanks to you, Alicia, I know so much about primroses I feel almost like a genuine horticulturist. And your photos are magnificent. Voted up!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much, drbj. I appreciate your kind comment and vote, as I always do!


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

Oh thank you so very much Alicia ;I love primroses and we have many out on our patio!!!

When i was small I would go and stay on the farm with my Grandmother who was a very matter of fact and blunt character. No sentimentality at all. So when she used to pick a bunch of primroses for me and she would then tie them with a pink ribbon it meant the world.

I also put Primroses on her grave .

Thank you again Alicia and havea great day.

Eddy.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment and for sharing the beautiful story about your grandmother, Eddy. I hope your patio primroses bloom well this year. Have a great day too!


wabash annie profile image

wabash annie 3 years ago from Colorado Front Range

The pictures of those flowers were so beautiful ... you have such a knack with photos and display. I like the original plants but also the hybrids too. Thanks for sharing!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, wabash annie. I appreciate your visit!


Athlyn Green profile image

Athlyn Green 3 years ago from West Kootenays

They are such a welcome site in the spring!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I agree, Athlyn. They are so pretty to see! Thanks for the visit.


ignugent17 profile image

ignugent17 3 years ago

Thanks for the information. They are so lovely. Getting ready for spring.

Have a great day. :-)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, ignugent17. I think that these spring flowers are lovely, too! I hope that you have a great day as well.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 3 years ago

I so enjoyed the walk through this garden of flowers. The primrose reminds me of the Victorian gardens of the past. What a simple piece of beauty in creation.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Dianna. I agree - primroses are a beautiful part of nature! They are such attractive flowers and add extra joy to the season. Thanks for the comment.


oliversmum profile image

oliversmum 3 years ago from australia

AliciaC Hi. Primula and Primrose make such a great display in any garden. We have several all different colors,they really are beautiful.

The dog we had before Oliver was named after the English "Primrose", so it is rather special to us.

Thank you for sharing all this information with us, and the photographs are just delightful. Thumbs up and Awesome. :):)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, oliversmum! It's lovely to see how many people like primulas. They have very appealing flowers.


Sue Bailey profile image

Sue Bailey 3 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

Such a variety of primulas all of them so pretty. What a nice hub. Voted up and shared.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment and the share, Sue! It's very nice to meet you.


DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Primulas and Primroses - Beautiful Spring Flowers are some of the most beautiful flowers indeed the unique photos explains it all.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, DDE.


VioletteRose profile image

VioletteRose 2 years ago from Chicago

Wow these flowers are so pretty! I am pinning this.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment and the pin, VioletteRose!

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