Primrose Primer: 9 Pretty Varieties for Your Garden


All About Hardy, Cheerful Primrose Flowers

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Primroses are hearty, rugged little perennial flowers that come in a rainbow of colors! These shade-lovers bloom from early spring through summer—for color all season long. Here are 9 types of pretty primroses.

About Primroses

There is nothing demure about primroses; they light up the landscape with carnival bright colors like egg yolk yellow, royal blue, magenta, and bright crimson.

Plus, they are hardy and adaptable. Many of my plants are survivors from the pots of primrose I picked up at the grocery store years ago, hoping to add some color to a drab winter day! They blossom reliably every spring and have spread to form a nice patch. I’ve lost a few over the years, but others have thrived and spread to form mats of color on our shady border.

The common name of a number of primroses (“cowslip”) has nothing to do with the lips of cattle; it comes from the Old English word sloppe, which means mud or dung! It refers to the way these flowers grew wild in wet meadows or even on an old cowpie.

9 Primrose Varieties

Since there are over 500 species of primrose in the genus Primula, knowing the origin of your plant will help you to give it the kind of site it needs to thrive. Some are mountain dwellers, some love water, and others need a woodland setting. Hybridizers have developed thousands of crosses from these species plants, giving us a multitude of primroses to choose from. Woodland primroses from Europe and Asia and the bog-lovers from Japan are the best suited for my New Hampshire garden. Here are some varieties recommended by the American Primrose Society.

Though most Primula veris are yellow, I have this one called Sunset Shades that came from a plant swap.

1. Primula veris

Primula veris is the English cowslip. It has umbrella-shaped clusters of small, deep yellow, fragrant flowers on 6-10 inch tall stalks. It can tolerate drier conditions than most primroses.

2. Primula elatior

Primula elatior is another English primrose; the Brits call it oxlip. It is taller than the cowslip and bears its showy, pale yellow flowers in loose clusters. Hardy to zone 4, it blooms very early and likes moist soil.


3. Primula vulgaris

Primula vulgaris is also native to Europe and has 10- to 12-inch stems topped with a cluster of single, soft yellow flowers. It has many hybrid forms that come in a wide range of bright colors, most with a yellow eye. Hardy to zone 5, it needs afternoon shade, especially on the hottest days of summer, and it will need watering during droughts.

4. Primula sieboldii 

Primula sieboldii hails from Japan and bears clusters of lacy, star-like flowers in white, pink, lilac, or red, often with a white center on 9-inch stems. Hardy to zone 4, it grows along riverbanks in its natural location and spreads by creeping rhizomes, which can be easily split from the original plant. If left alone, it will naturalize well. To survive hot climates it goes dormant in August, disappearing until cooler fall weather arrives.

A friend gave me denticulata seeds which grew several colors of drumstick primroses. The whites and purples seem to do the best for me but the pink ones have disappeared.

5. Primula denticulata

Primula denticulata is called the drumstick primrose for its ball of flowers atop a 10-inch stem. Native to wet alpine meadows of the Himalayas, it is the earliest to bloom in my garden. It comes in a wide range of colors, from lavender and rose to magenta and white. Hardy to zone 3, this is one of the easiest primroses to grow.

6. Primula kisoana

Primula kisoana is an Asian species that has wide, fuzzy lobed leaves and small clusters of red, pink, or white flowers. It thrives in part shade and moist soil and is hardy to zone 2. It spreads by underground runners that are easily divided.

7. Primula japonica

Primula japonica is a moisture-loving Japanese primrose that flourishes in wet spots where another plant would drown. It blooms in May, bearing an exotic 5- or 6-tiered candelabra of flowers in white, red, purple, or pink that can reach 2 feet tall. Some look like they have been dusted with silver and covered with a glittery substance called farina. Hardy to zone 4, it readily seeds itself to form large stands.

Gold Laced primrose looks rare but can be grown from seed.

8. Primula polyanthus

Primula polyanthus is a hybrid primrose developed from the other species. It has the widest color variations, including bi-colors, stripes, and contrasting edges. Vibrant and velvety, it adds pools of color to a shady garden. Some even look like miniature roses.

Antique ‘Hose-in-Hose’ variety.

9. Hose-in-Hose

One of the interesting antique primulas is a polyanthus mutation called ‘Hose-in-Hose.’ Popular in Elizabethan England, its name refers to the way gentlemen of the royal court wore 2 pairs of stockings at once, the outer pair rolled down to reveal the inner pair. The flower of ‘Hose-in-Hose’ has one long-necked single blossom arising from the throat of another blossom. It is called a double flower but really is two singles stacked together.

Growing Primroses

Sow primrose seeds in later winter. I grow my seedlings right on the windowsill before setting them outside. If you have a cold frame, you can sow outdoors in winter. Once the seedlings grow their second leaves, you can transplant them into the garden.

Most primroses do best in fast-draining, moist, slightly acidic soil. They do best if given morning sun and shade during the hottest part of the day. Mine do well planted under deciduous trees where they get lots of early spring sunshine and shade in the summer. Bog-loving varieties need plenty of water.

You can also find primroses in most garden nurseries; choose plants with unopened buds. 

When you transplant, don’t bury the crown, or it will rot. They are not heavy feeders, and too much nitrogen will promote leaf growth, not flowers. Primulas are shallow-rooted, so abrupt changes in temperature may harm them. Mulching evens out the temperature swings and also retains moisture.

They combine well with other spring bloomers like daffodils, forget-me-nots, and bleeding hearts. See our Growing Guide to Bleeding Hearts.

Do you love primroses? Tell us about your favorite variety!

About The Author

Robin Sweetser

Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. Read More from Robin Sweetser

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