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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.
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 pick 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 in 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.
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.
Primula elatior is another English one; 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.
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 in the hottest days of summer and will need watering during droughts.
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.
Primula denticulatais 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.
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.
Primula japonicais a moisture-loving Japanese primrose that flourishes in wet spots where other 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, covered with a glittery substance called farina. Hardy to zone 4 it readily seeds itself to form large stands.
Primula polyanthus are the hybrid primroses developed from the other species. They have the widest color variations including bi-colors, stripes, and contrasting edges. Vibrant and velvety, they add pools of color to a shady garden. Some even look like miniature roses.
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.
Sow primrose seeds in later winter; I grow my seedlings right on the windowsill before setting outside. If you have a cold frame, you can sow outdoors in winter. Once the seedlings grow their second leaves, you can transplant 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 they will rot. They are not heavy feeders and too much nitrogen will promote leaf growth instead of 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.