As out winter in Minnesota finally releases its hold in April, I wander down my woodland primrose path each day looking for signs of the garden awakening from its long slumber. Having gardened here in central Minnesota for 30 years, it still brings feelings of wonder that plants gifted by my friends years ago greet me anew each spring with the love in which they were given
The first primulas to greet me are the hot pink, lavender, or white balls of Primula denticulata and the soft yellow blooms of Primula elatior. Both have reseeded in my former nursery area where, now, a life-sized clay statue of St. Francis of Assisi sits on granite pieces from an old cable car street. In my meadow of self-sown primroses, St. Francis’s hand extends in welcome. My woodland garden has become a sort of spiritual garden in memory of my husband Francis and St. Francis, as both loved nature. My husband loved my primroses and helped me often in my woodland garden. My garden is full of memories of friends past and present dwelling in their plants that I grow.
Primula elatior is a tough plant, and I have had it for 30 years. One plant somehow came up in my lawn on the west side of the house far away from my woodland garden. That Primula elatior is subjected to severe winter cold (this year, two days of -38° F/-39° C) often with very little snow cover and no fall leaf protection as the leaves are all gathered from the lawn in that area. This year in my woodland, Primula elatior subsp. meyeri bloomed with delightful hanging blossoms of a soft lavender. Primula veris follows soon after with small hanging bell-like blooms in yellow, red or soft orange and some hose-in-hose forms. All are welcome in my garden, adding to the diversity. As Doretta Klaber said in her book Primroses and Spring: “Primroses cast a spell on you.” I have been happily smitten with them for years, pleased that they have tolerated life in my Minnesota climate.
Primula ‘Vera Maud’, a juliana primrose from Barnhaven Primroses, makes a delightful small mound covered with single blooms of white, often flushed with yellow or lavender and even a pink. All of them have dark foliage. I have several juliana primroses from an Alaskan primrose friend, Marie Skonberg. I wish I could have visited her gardens as she also had quite a love of primroses. One especially beautiful primula is a Jack-in-the-green-type with bright fuchsia flowers. Alas, I no longer know the names of the primroses she gave me except for the stalked yellow flowered Primula ‘Dorothy’. My Alaskan friend is gone now so I just refer to them as primula from Marie my Alaskan friend. They have been very hardy, unlike some of the other named juliana varieties I have tried over the years.
The next primrose to appear is Primula vulgaris subsp. rubra, with soft lavender pink flowers, which makes a slowly creeping ground cover. I have two of them side by side, one of which is the earlier blooming of the two with slightly larger leaves. Both have the same leaf, growth habit, and flower color. Which is the true one I don’t know, but I enjoy them both.
Waiting their turn are the single flowered Primula acaulis from Barnhaven seed in colors of red, yellow, blue or white, which cover their foliage beautifully. The pink Barnhaven Primula acaulis has not been hardy for me. I first received Barnhaven acaulis primrose seed from the American Primrose Society’s seed exchange years ago, but now order most of my primrose seed directly from Barnhaven Primroses in France each year. In October I plant the primrose seed for the coming May planting and sales in my small 8 foot x 10 foot (2.5 m x 3 m) greenhouse attached to the house, which my husband built for me. The main problem I have now is whether to order just my usual 300 Barnhaven primrose seeds or more as the greenhouse will hold up to 600 primrose plants.
The story of Barnhaven has always fascinated me. During the depression, Florence Bellis, a concert pianist from Oregon unable to find work for those talented fingers, ordered primula seed from England and proceeded for years to hybridize and grow thousands of polyanthus and acaulis primroses, resulting in wonderful colors. Barnhaven was eventually sold, with the new owners creating even more beautiful colors. The Barnhaven polyanthus Cowichan plants don’t have the usual star eye which gives a different velvety look to their flowers. The Cowichan yellow and amethyst colors have been hardy for me but not the blue, sadly.
The gold laced polyanthus ‘Beeches Strain’ has large dark red blooms edged with gold and they delight me each time I see them in bloom. There is also a smaller flowered silver-laced form with black flowers edged in white and while both are smaller plants they have unusual charm. You either love them or hate them but most people exclaim when they see them as they remind one of a daisy. They have been hardy for me but maybe not as long lived as other primroses in my garden, perhaps needing division sooner. Some of my primroses I have never divided and they keep on blooming. When primroses get crowded and stop blooming it is time to divide them.
I have grown Primula farinosa. It is not long lived with me yet I love the daintiness of the plant. I suspect my rich soil needs to be amended with some granite chips as a friend grew them well in her sandy soil. Primula cortusoides and P. polyneura are also not long lived for me but I like them and continue to grow them each year hoping they will reseed for me.
I first received Primula kisoana from Florence Keller of the Minnesota NARGS chapter and it has naturalized upon the top of a sloping hill to the northwest with a soft pink cloud of color. I also grow the darker pink form which was said to come from Lincoln Foster. I have two white flowered Primula kisoana, both of which I received many years ago, one from Margaret Mason, a delightful English lady from Oregon, and the other from a friend in Japan. I don’t see much difference in them. As with all Primula kisoana, you need to keep an eye on them as they do creep rather aggressively. I keep them under control by potting up the extras for sale.
I have grown Primula auricula from seed and have enjoyed their velvety blooms and leathery leaves. I first put them in a small rock garden years ago but then moved them to the east-facing rock garden where they seem to like the good drainage and the morning sun.
I have always been fascinated by Primula marginata but haven’t yet found the right place for it. I have P. marginata ‘Linda Pope’ tucked into a rocky outcrop in my east-facing rock garden but it doesn’t thrive like the P. marginata from Rice Creek Gardens did when I had planted it in a trough where it became large and happy. Alas, I tired of winterizing the trough by setting it on the ground and covering it with fall leaves and so I planted that P. marginata in the east-facing garden where it has dwindled. My friend Margaret Mason grew many P. marginata to perfection in a north-facing rock wall in Oregon, but then she grew many things to perfection.
The next primroses to bloom are Primula sieboldii in a mixture of colors and snowflake blossoms. The plant creeps to make a groundcover, which dies down by the end of July. A heavy downpour will flatten the blooms a bit but they will rise again if not in deep shade. They are in the area surrounding my St. Francis statue and give color when the earlier primroses are through. My friends Jay and Ann Lunn of Oregon gave me many forms of this beautiful primrose that grace the meadow bed. I moved some of the deeper and lighter pinks next to a Japanese painted fern along the path and the combination is stunning, picking up the pink shades in the beautiful fern.
Next, Primula japonica blooms on two foot (60 cm) stalks with three to four whirls of white, red, or pink flowers. Having reseeded well they crowd out many weeds. They don’t stay evergreen over the winter, disappearing below ground in the fall. Irrigation with good moisture retentive soil is best for them, but don’t plant them in standing water as they need good drainage while still being moist. I had seen pictures of them naturalized along a stream bank which was beautiful so I planted a few along a rill near our creek and in another low area. All are surviving nicely with mother nature seeding them around with a caring hand.
Primroses need companions, so from Ron Bendixen I received Hylomecon japonicum, a deer-proof woodlander from Japan which has bright yellow blooms and wonderful foliage when the primula start to bloom. From Al Stavos, I received Trillium cuneatum, T. luteum and three other smaller trillium which I haven’t identified yet. When Al passed away his wife was kind enough to give me a bit of his ashes which I placed under the first of his trillium to bloom, so now he greets me each spring. I have met so many wonderful garden mentors over the years and they each shared their love of plants and knowledge freely. Betty Ann Addison of Rice Creek Gardens gave me the beautiful Anemonella ‘Cameo’ which graces the entrance of my woodland garden path with many soft pink double flowers. This year she generously gave me a piece of a double flowered Trillium grandiflorum, which I treasure.
I also received an old, very large clump of Trillium grandiflorum from Georgie Burt years ago. When the seedlings beneath its feet start to bloom, I transplant them to other places in my garden. Blooming at the same time is the beautiful white Mertensia virginica ‘Ceil’, which I received from Lois Ecklund, who got it from her mother-in-law Ceil, who got it from an elderly lady in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is quite old and full of memories. Its white hanging bells are very graceful and pair nicely with a short white Primula sieboldii growing with it, which I also got from Lois.
The first large blue, white and pink blooms of Hepatica x media ‘Ballard’s variety’, H. transsilvanica ‘Eisvogel’ and H. transsilvanica ‘Rosea’ have greeted me as early as March, but more often in April, depending on Mother Nature’s fickle teasing. They are slow growing and make a ground cover rather than forming clumps as do other hepaticas. Their leaves, wonderfully large and scalloped like the fancy edged collar of a lady’s blouse, are a delight all summer.
I have grown hepaticas for 18 years and treasure them. I first saw a blue flowered one in my friend Georgie Burt’s garden in North Dakota, and she kindly gave me a piece. She didn’t know the name of it but when we attended an International American Primrose Society gathering together in Oregon we saw it in a garden and the mystery was solved.
I purchased my white and rose flowered Hepatica transsilvanica from Potterton and Martin in England shortly thereafter. I bought Hepatica x media ‘Ballard’s Variety’ from Bovees Nursery in Oregon having seen it there while on a tour. Pleasantly, the blue has been gently reseeding in my garden. I also have a special dark, blue-double flowered hepatica that belonged to David Vesal that he purchased at Grand Ridge Nursery years ago. Farther along the edge of the path grows a small-leaved hepatica with red flowers given to me by Ed Burkhardt. Both men were members of our Minnesota NARGS chapter.
While visiting a nursery during the 2001 International Rock Garden conference in Scotland, the owner kindly gave me a packet of mixed hepatica seed. I planted them in my garden immediately in July when I returned home. I now have a mixture of colors and foliage from that sowing and they are reseeding nicely in the garden. What a gift when one receives seeds given because of a wish to share their love of special plants with you.
For 20 years I have grown the lovely Peltoboykinia watanabei. It is a late rising plant from Japan which I purchased at Collector’s Nursery from Diana Reeck. Creeping and seeding slowly, it has the most wonderful round eight-inch (20 cm) leaves with jagged-toothed edges and a yellow flower. Every year when my special plants appear I picture the person I got them from and so will never forget them even though the years keep going by much too fast.
The small rock garden is now my nursery bed for the blue-flowered Jeffersonia dubia which seems to prefer that location with high shade and a gritty soil mix rather than in the deep shade of the woodland garden. Jeffersonia dubia hardly bloomed and languished when I first planted it in deep shade. I love this early blooming plant with icy blue flowers and am always wishing for the white form. My friend Ron Bendixen gave me a blue-flowered Jeffersonia dubia with a dark eye last year and this year one with variegated leaves. I’m waiting to see them bloom, having put the dark-eyed one towards the front of the woodland garden where it will receive more light while placing the variegated one in the white mertensia and Primula sieboldii bed.
Growing and Loving Primroses
My love affair with primroses began thirty years ago when I first read Doretta’s Klaber’s book Primroses and Spring. I still read it every spring for inspiration. I then joined The American Primrose Society, NARGS, and several other plant societies, ordering every kind of primrose seed I could get my hands on.
I have grown primroses successfully under maples with their greedy roots over the years providing I give them sufficient moisture during the summer and 3-6-inch (7.5-15-cm) deep cover of fallen leaves for winter protection, especially during March. When the snow cover melts in March, the ground thaws a couple of inches and refreezes each night which can be deadly for the primroses. The leaf mulch keeps them dormant and their ground frozen until the weather starts to warm in April.
Primula simply love a deep bed of fall leaves decomposing and holding moisture to grow in. I used to remove all the winter cover each year in the spring until I realized the many advantages of leaving the natural cover in place. The primula will push up through the leaf cover when it’s time for them to arrive in all their glory. Juliana primroses, with their shorter growth, will need some of the leaf cover removed which is why I plant them towards the front of a bed or path.
I have gotten the best bloom and growth from my primroses with those planted where they receive some sun with consistent moisture through the summer, especially so if it is afternoon sun. Primroses planted in deep shade will bloom, but will not multiply and bloom as well as those with at least two to three hours of sunlight. I also put wood ashes and decomposing leaf mulch in each hole when planting the new primroses each spring.
I do not plant primroses in the fall. Years ago, I lost 200 plants when I planted them the end of September. There was not enough time for the young plants to get their roots settled in for the long winter nap.
It is a battle each year to get the thousands of maple tree seedlings pulled and keep the garden sprayed consistently with repellent before the deer eat the plants. The deer don’t eat the primroses, thank the Lord, but they will graze on many other things. They will even munch on a helleborus flower stalk before spitting it on the ground and moving on to eat the tops of my martagon lilies from NARGS seed. I must make quite a comical picture in the garden with my backpack sprayer and cane.
I am almost 74 now, and garden with a cane and shovel. While I am not able to work in the garden all day as I used to, I pace myself realizing that if you keep moving wisely, consistently, and daily, your work will get done. Especially with some help from my friend, Mary Lou, who helps me plant one day a week for two hours during May. The Lord gave us friends and plants to enjoy and discover so we must not waste a day.