Choosing Primroses by Joan Hoeffel

(From the summer 2012 Quarterly)

I think I am a generous gardener. I like to share my plants with those who visit my garden. I’ve toured many gardens, but I can’t recall any gardener ever inviting me to choose a plant or two or three to take home to my garden. I guess it isn’t done.  But here’s how it is with me.


I’ve been hosting garden clubs and gardening groups and friends with friends for many years now. Sometimes the visitors number over twenty-five at a time, and they usually come to see the many, many primroses blooming in the early spring. There are hundreds, and the many species have been mixed and matched by the birds, bees and insects for at least 20 years. The forms and colors are breathtaking, and I tell my visitors that they may choose at least three primroses from the wondrous array set out before them. And this is where it gets curious … no one has ever asked for a plant that I would be loath to part with. And of course, I wouldn’t say, “No,” anyway, but it just hasn’t happened. It’s the plants they choose that I find so interesting.

Most visitors go for color and the size of the bloom, so the polyanthus primroses are the most popular group. The near-black and deep maroon gold-laced gems appeal to many, but the red, rose and deep pink polys are the first to be chosen. I make it a point to keep dividing the most sought after colors, so there are always plenty available. Oddly, the big, deep blues, of which there are never enough in the APS seed exchange, are pretty much overlooked, but not so the dark colored, velvety petals of the Cowichans. If they are standing tall and straight, they’re sure to go. I have many white polyanthus primroses in several different flower forms. There are wide and narrow petals, deeply-cleft petals, big and little yellow centers … when they are bright and fresh, they find a new home.

The yellow and orange primroses are the least popular, but recently, two very knowledgeable gentlemen from a NARGS chapter were here and right off, one chose a large flowered, deep golden yellow polyanthus. The other was quick to choose a maroon Juliana hybrid with dark foliage.

I cannot keep enough of the Juliana hybrids. It takes a very observant gardener to notice the little jewels, but once someone has called attention to them … off they go, especially the deep, dark reds.

P. kisoana with its vibrant pink flowers, roundish, felted leaves and the tendency to form large colonies is a winner, but  when P. sieboldii is in bloom in all its variant flower forms and colors and its rippling, bright green foliage, it’s the star of the show. Luckily, the Sieboldii primroses multiply rapidly to keep up with the demand.

If my visitors come a bit later in the spring, all the lovely, lovely primroses in the garden take a back seat to the candelabras. Primula japonica is by far the favorite. It inhabits several areas in my garden, some wet and some just evenly
moist, but it blooms in sweeps with every imaginable color and hue from white through several shades of pink, rose, red, cerise, magenta, coral, maroon and even variegations. No plants in the garden can outshine them. Some in or near the
stream grow as big as cabbages, while those in the woodland are more demure and have greater appeal. P. bulleyana, P. beesiana, P. burmanica, P. pulverulenta and P. cockburniana bloom at nearly the same time. Of these, it is mostly the few plants with flowers of softer colors of mauve or salmon that attract visitors.

Primula veris has no takers. They are almost totally shunned by those looking for treasures. Occasionally, a brick red may be chosen by someone, but it’s rare, while I think their vigor and ability to grow almost anywhere as well as their neverfail
attribute of self-sowing are endearing qualities. Perhaps most astounding is the fact that Primula auricula can be passed by again and again without a nod from anyone. It delights me, because I want to keep each and every one I grow. Rarely are any two alike. It has occurred to me that gardeners who are unfamiliar with the genus Primula don’t recognize the auriculas as primroses. The heavy, succulent-like leaves and the unusual  flower form with its central area of paste, to say nothing of the odd colors, don’t say, “Pretty!” to my visitors. To me, they say, “Exquisite!” So, I am happy not to call attention to them or the Striped Victorians, the double polyanthus, the ‘Paris 90s’ or the tiny frondosas or sweet capitatas. It’s just as well … I don’t like to say, “No.”

The most popular primroses
according to Joan:

  • The bigger the blossom, the better
  • Polyanthus go first: red, rose and deep pink
  • The dusky Cowichans, in garnet, amethyst and deep blue are always favorites.
  • Crisp white flower forms of polyanthus walk away with guests
  • Little Julianas, particularly the deepreds with dark leaves find new homes frequently.
  • Demure forms of the candelabrasin mauve and apricot, particularly,are chosen by guests to go to newhomes.

[What fortunate visitors Joan Hoffel has, that are able to walk off with their picks from her many primroses!]