Prim and Proper – Primulas

When thinking ‘winter garden’, the vibrant palette offered to us by Primula malacoides (Fairy Primrose) and its cousin Primula acaulis (English Primrose) are among the first thoughts that come to mind. Both malacoides and acaulis belong to the Primulaceae family, originating in the northern hemisphere, and indigenous to Europe and much of Southeast Asia, but thanks to the work of breeders and the innate resilience of the plant, Primulas are now thriving across the globe.

Primula_malacoides1The name Primula is derived from the feminine diminutive of the Latin word “primus”, meaning first, because they are among the first of the spring plants to flower. Don’t be fooled by their seemingly high maintenance names though, especially the Fairy, or their delicate appearance as they are tough, hardworking plants that need little attention once established. They even have a built in defence mechanism in the form of a chemical called primulin, particularly prevalent in P. abconica and malacoides which is deposited on their leaves by tiny hairs and can cause nausea and skin irritations, in more sensitive people, with direct contact. Breeders have all but eliminated this in our modern day hybrids though, so much so that very few suffer an extreme reaction, if any at all.

Planted en masse, the versatile Primula malacoides creates a sea of blooms that gives a real wild flower feel to your garden but they’ll work equally well as border plants and in containers. 

Fairy Primrose is available in white, crimson, lavender, purple, pink and rose with adult plants reaching up to 45 cm tall and 20 cm across and will compliment your spring flowering bulbs beautifully by flowering well into summer.

The English Primrose flowers in tight bunches and is much shorter than the Fairy, but offers a comparable range of colour, so remember to plant them in the front of your beds because its low height makes it an excellent choice for borders. Acaulis, meaning “without stem”, is quite a literal description, as their flowers seem to come straight out of the leaves. Sweating it out in the heat is not something acaulis do well so they normally die down early in the summer.

When preparing their beds, dig a healthy amount of compost into the soil to give them a proper head start and try ensure the spot you’ve chosen gets some morning sun but then adequate shade for the rest of the day. Primulas don’t like to dry out, especially acaulis which has a very short root system, so keep the soil moist and pop a 5cm layer of mulch on top to help keep the moisture in longer.

Pamper them with a phosphate based fertiliser every six weeks if you’d like to encourage more flowers, which is what we’re all in this for in the first place, isn’t it? Hanging baskets and containers could do with monthly feeding, especially if you’re watering more often.

Nothing truly heralds the onset of spring like the prim and proper primula. When your garden is at its most dormant the spectrum of colour they provide is sure to lift you, and it, from the winter doldrums. You simply can’t afford to do without them this winter!

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