With care, primroses can be enjoyed every spring


It seems we have made it through the winter without much garden damage for a change. We will probably get a few more dustings of snow, but the ground is thawing and the honeybees are making a few flights on warmer days. Planting season isn’t far off.

One of the earliest splashes of color available right now is primroses. The store racks are enticing, to say the least, and the warmer weather is perfect for adding them to your garden.

Primroses are also known as cowslips or by their scientific name Primula, which in Greek means first, for their early blooming. There are more than 400 species in this genus and dozens of cultivars and varieties beyond that. While many people buy them to brighten the garden or the house for a few weeks before discarding them, primroses are hardy here and, with close attention to their needs, they are perennial.

Primroses need rich, well-drained soil and a steady supply of moisture, especially in our hot, dry summers. They prefer a spot in the garden that gets early spring sun but is shaded from the hot sun of summer. This makes them perfect for planting under deciduous shrubs or in a woodland garden. Add compost to the bed when planting and feed them regularly through the summer. Deadhead spent flowers and ratty leaves to keep them blooming into late spring.

Because they are evergreen, they benefit from a little protection over the winter. In the late fall after the ground freezes, cover them with a three- to four-inch mulch of pine needles to protect them. A blanket of snow on top of that is extra insurance. In the late winter after the deep cold has gone, uncover the crowns so they get light. As they start growing, remove the mulch completely and feed them. Protect them from hungry deer with some netting or deer spray.

Primroses have been the darling of cottage gardens for centuries. Victorian-era British plant breeders spared no effort to create new cultivars in their day. If you want to explore other varieties beyond those found on the racks, check online sources for varieties recommended by the American Primrose Society.

English cowslips form a basal rosette of dark green leaves with flowers held on a 10-inch stalk. Originally, the slightly fragrant flowers were yellow, but hybridizers have expanded that to red, orange and rust. English primrose is the plant we find in abundance in nurseries here. They are a ground hugger that holds the flowers close to the plant. The flowers come in a wide range of colors.

The polyanthus primrose has been around for about 300 years, and in that time breeders have developed many colors. The flowers stand about a foot tall and are easy to grow. Juliana primroses stay dwarf with flowers that may be only a couple of inches tall. Drumstick primroses have a large ball of flowers on a 12-inch fleshy stalk. This variety particularly likes moisture and shade.

Pat Munts has gardened in the Spokane Valley for more than 35 years. She can be reached at pat@ inlandnwgardening.com.

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