Grocery Store Primroses

image of J Sellers

About Those Little ‘Grocery Store’ Primroses

By Judith Sellers, NY


Where we find them: 

As we wander the aisles of the larger grocery stores or discount centers in search of something to brighten our days at this time of year, we often run across rather forlorn displays of little plants with  brightly colored flowers with the label “Primrose” stuck in each pot.


Looking closely at the reds, blues, yellows, oranges, purples or pinks of these flowers, we may find the yellow centers are not all alike.  Some have a perfect star or circle, others a scalloped pattern, or even a raised ring with dots of bright yellow – a “crown” – in the center of each flower, and it is hard to decide which plant is most beautiful.  As the price is usually lower than that for 4 oranges, we may tuck two or three pots in the cart, put them on the window sill or dining table at home, and wonder why they die within a week.
Where they came from:
These Primroses are relatively new to cultivation.  The hybridizers found a good thing in the wide color range, early spring bloom and compact habit of the garden Primroses (Primula acaulis, Primula polyanthus, and probably a few of the wild species) and interbred them to make a profitable plant.  These hybrids are designed  as “Gift Plants”, blooming in 4 months or less from seed, which can be sown in the commercial cool greehouse during a time when there is usually space available, sold through mass marketing, and discarded after blooming.

The problems we encounter:
Unfortunately, these plants provide many people with their first and last Primrose growing experience. Because they require consistent plentiful moisture (but not flooding at the roots), good light, and cool temperatures to continue to do well after purchase, they are not often happy performers in our winter- dark, overheated homes, and the plants soon collapse, their flowers brown and shriveled.  We then say “I can’t grow Primroses”, and move on to something else for both indoor and outdoor gardening.

How to succeed:
It is actually easy to keep these plants blooming well and providing a taste of spring indoors for several weeks. First, remove the decorative wrapping or foil from the outside of the pot. These covers are designed to encourage purchase, but they prevent free drainage, and may lead to rotting of the roots. A bright, cool (50 to 65 degrees F or 10 to 20 C) place should then be found, and care taken to keep the soil moist, but not sodden, at all times. An ordinary fluorescent light, set about a foot above the plants, lit for at least 12 hours a day, will provide excellent light to compensate for cloudy days. Fertilizers should not be necessary, as the grower will have already used the most food possible to promote plenty of buds and blooms.

When they have finished blooming:
In some cases, the owners of these little gems, having kept them alive indoors through winter, plant them in the border or bed in spring in hopes that they will continue to provide early spring color with the daffodils in future years.  It is usually a disappointment to find absolutely nothing in their spot after the snow melts, but these plants were not bred for toughness. They can not survive very hot summers (either too dry or too humid), or extended winter cold with wet conditions as well as their ‘less well bred’ relatives can.

Appreciating primroses:
If we accept these Primroses as simply the harbingers of spring, something to gladden the heart and brighten the home for a few weeks, we happily anticipate their appearance each January or February. For garden plants, there are hundreds of other tough and wonderful Primula species and hybrids that will bloom year after year, and make our greenhouses and gardens more beautiful and exciting.


Copyright © 1999-2007 American Primrose Society. All rights reserved


Additional Comment: Growing “Supermarket Primroses” in the Pacific North-West

In the previous article Judy is writing about her experiences living in the eastern US.  As she says, these store-bought primroses are not bred for the garden, and quickly disappear when placed outside in her part of the world.

The case is quite different in milder regions such as southern England, or the Pacific states and British Columbia in North America.   I have found that many of these gems do survive here (BC), especially in milder winters, if you harden them off gradually (leaving them outside a little longer day by day).  After all, they are descended, probably in the most part, from Primula vulgaris, which is as tough as nails in many climates.

In my previous garden near Vancouver, BC I found that the blue ones were the longest-lived, lasting for three, four or five years in the ground, though other colors were also “good doers”.

If late winter and spring temperatures in your region average around minus 2 or 3 Centigrade, and do not usually fall below minus 10 degrees Centigrade, why not try putting some of these lovely flowers in an experimental patch of your garden next spring?


Michael Plumb