best primulas for our gardens, with ‘primrose’ author elizabeth lawson
WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE about primroses? I felt that way even before I read Elizabeth Lawson’s deep-dive social and cultural history of the genus in her new book, “Primrose,” part of a botanical series from London-based Reaktion Books.
Elizabeth Lawson is a naturalist and writer from Ithaca, NY, with a doctorate in botany. She’s also the new president of the American Primrose Society.
The name Primula translates as “little first one,” and they are a welcome sight of spring. She introduced me to the best primulas for our gardens today, and some primrose legend and lore. Plus: Enter to win the book in the comments at the very bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the July 22, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). Photo of drumstick primrose, Primula denticulata, above by Pam Eveleigh.)
getting to know primroses, with elizabeth lawson
Margaret Roach: I almost feel like we ought to give one of those legal disclaimer warnings before we start talking, like, “Trying these plants at home can be habit-forming,” because they are contagious, aren’t they? [Laughter.]
Elizabeth Lawson: Oh they are, there’s no question. Primroses, they have character and extraordinary details, and their saturated color—it’s like wine. You get addicted.
Margaret: I don’t know if all of them are early, but the ones that I know are early and that’s a welcome thing sometimes, too, yes?
Elizabeth: That is probably the most important facet of their character that appealed to people for centuries, maybe before people understood weather or were frightened by it. But primroses were the first and that’s what their name has meant: “little first one.”
Margaret: Little first one. O.K. As I recall, you were telling me when we’ve spoken before … the book “Primrose,” that it’s part of a series, and it came about because you proposed it to the London-based publisher yourself. Is that right?
Elizabeth: That’s right.
Margaret: Yes. So tell us how that happened.
Elizabeth: Well, I guess it’s my family history; we’re all interested in natural history. And probably 10 years ago I bought a book called “Snake,” that was produced in Reaktion’s animal series, for my son, who raised ball pythons since he was a kid. It’s a beautiful little book. And then I found out they had a botanical series, and they did rose and lily and others. I thought, gee, there’s no primrose. And primrose has been declared one of the three great garden genera, along with rose and lily. And so I retired from teaching, and I just thought, “I’m going to write a book proposal,” and I knew how to do it from other work I did. And within several weeks, they said yes.
Margaret: And Reaktion is the name of the publisher, yes?
Margaret: And it’s funny that they didn’t have it in their botanical series, because it’s sort of like the English think the primrose is their thing, right?
Elizabeth: I know. And I was almost a little abashed as an American to suggest it. But really we have one of the greatest primrose breeders of all times. Florence Bellis, was an American. So I had that history to work with. And now the primrose belongs to every country. There are breeders in Japan and Europe, and now the primrose has circled the globe. [Above, ‘Flamenco‘, a new double Primula sieboldii; photo by Paul Held.]
Margaret: Yes. And what I was fascinated to learn about in the book—many, many, many things in this sort of cultural-social history of the primrose that you’ve written—there are actually native primroses to many wide-ranging places including Utah and Colorado and Alaska and Missouri. And I didn’t know that.
Elizabeth: And actually I didn’t know that, either, and that was part of the fun of writing the book. I did spend about three years doing the research. There’s a primrose right at the tip of South America, Primula magellanica. There’s one in Mexico. It was like a geographical tour of some lovely places on the planet.
Margaret: And some very preposterous places that it feels very hard to live to me. The descriptions … some of the habitats are pretty tough habitats, aren’t they?
Elizabeth: Oh, yes. And one of the fascinating things is that in the late 1990s a new species of primrose was discovered in Italy in the Dolomites. And there’s a picture in the book, a full-page picture of two little primroses way high up on a limestone cliff, just tucked away almost invisible and really exquisite species. Now, I’ll have to check. It may not have been the Dolomites, but anyway, it was a mountainous of northern Italy. [Update: It’s in the Bergamesque Prealps of Lombardy, Italy.]
Margaret: Right. Right. And again, not the kind of place that we think, “Oh, this is lush habitat for a plant to want to grow.” [Laughter.]
Elizabeth: Exactly. Right.
Margaret: Yes. I loved that sometimes you can tell from their physical characteristics, some of the species, where they’re from in terms of whether they’re very northern. That some of them have certain physical traits. For instance, that word—it looks like the breakfast cereal “farina”—tell us about that, for instance.
Elizabeth: Yes. Well, a number of species that live in areas where there’s high irradiation and at high altitudes have this thing called farina, which is a white powder. It’s really exquisite affects. And one of the most famous primulas, the auricula, is the one from in the Alps, and it was first discovered in Vienna at a botanic garden, the hybrid that became the basis of what we call today the auricula. And this white powder that breeders have now manipulated—or really not even manipulated, they just grow many seeds and collect the seedlings that have the most beautiful dustings and ornament. It’s almost like a makeup.
Margaret: So they select for that trait? They select for it.
Elizabeth: They select. Yes.
Margaret: Yes, but you find it in northern Primula species more, yes?
Elizabeth: And Sweden [e.g., Primula scandinavia]. There’s a wonderful breeder in Sweden who offered several photos for the book. There’s hardly a flower that has the kind of decorative effects, and it’s all the result of this powder.
Margaret: Yes. So you just said “auricula,” and so the whole world of primroses, of the genus Primula, kind of has a whole language of its own and some of it we’ve heard. Even laypeople who aren’t into plants have probably heard the word “primrose” and the word maybe even “cowslip” or “oxslip,” and a little farther along maybe in their knowledge, “auricula.” So tell us a little bit about what’s a primrose, if you’re a Primula fancier. What’s a primrose versus one of the other things? [Left to right, above: primrose, oxslip and cowslip.]
Elizabeth: Well, yes, that’s a hard question to answer. In Europe, particularly maybe in the British Isles, when someone says primrose, everyone thinks the common primrose, the English primrose, the Shakespearean primrose, which is Primula vulgaris.
But in this country, when I learned and started to educate myself on primroses, I learned primula itself is used as both a common name and the Latin name, and that’s where the confusion is. So you’ll find plants online, and nurseries, and they’ll call it Primula something-or-other if it’s the hybrid, or they’ll say primrose something-or-other.
So in the genus Primula there are probably 450 species and there are hundreds more hybrids. And so Primula auricula, which some people think is one of the most beautiful of the scientific names, it’s so euphonious, Primula auricula, that is a wildflower from way high up in the Alps. But then what we call the auricula today, they’re all a hybrid of a yellow one and a pink one, which had their own scientific names. One of the things about primroses is there’s endless variety, and you can create that variety in your own garden. You set them out and they can hybridize and do their own thing right in your own garden.
Margaret: So, let’s talk about in our own garden. You said 450 or 500 species and we talked a little bit about some of them come from hanging off dolomitic limestone cliffs in high altitude or whatever, not a place like my garden. So what are the sort of gateway primulas? What are the ones that Elizabeth would say to us, “If you’re going to get started” … and again, with that caveat that you’ll probably get addicted because each one is more charming than the next, what are some of the ones you would want us to get started with?
Elizabeth: O.K. Well, I was thinking about that question. And my husband has a garden center in Ithaca, New York, and so I would tell listeners go to your nearest garden center and see what they have. And in most cases they will have at least five to 10 different kinds of primroses. And one thing that is a good tip is to go to a wholesaler’s website. For instance, Sunny Border gets a lot of primroses, and if you go to their website, they list 46 different kinds of primroses. And you type in your Zip Code and you can find out the nearest retailer near you.
Now, I have a list of about 12 primroses that you will find usually in a garden center. One is called the drumstick primrose, and it has sort of a pompom of flowers set high. It’s easy to grow and is charming.
Margaret: Is it in a particular species then?
You’ll often find in the trade Primula vialii, which is also called the orchid primrose. And they’re lovely, sort of a little cone-shaped flower, and they brighten from the bottom up. So the lower part of a pink one may be quite light pink, but the flowers at the tip are fairly dark.
I highly recommend gold-laced primroses. There’s one that’s in the trade called the Bumble Bee, and you can buy them as plants, and there are others called the silver-laced. They’re often sold as Primula elatior Victorian hybrid laced. They’re easy to grow. They come up, you can divide them. They’re very beautiful, and they’re very old. That was a mutation that appeared back in the 18th century, and they’ve been propagated ever since then.
I also recommend the doubles. There’s a new series of doubles that come out of England that are sold here in the United States by Bluestone Perennials, the Belarinas. There’s one called ‘Amethyst Ice,’ ‘Cobalt Blue,’ ‘Pink Ice,’ ‘Buttercup,’ ‘Valentine.’ Lovely, hardy plants. They do like kind of a moist, humusy soil, but really lovely. [Above, ‘Amethyst Ice’ photo from Bluestone.]
If you like sort of some of the novel forms, there’s Primula ‘Blue Zebra’ [photo above], which is sold by Michigan Bulb and it’s very decorative. It has sort of a purplish-blue with white stripes.
One of the things that primroses do is create what the Elizabethans called frantic and foolish primroses. And one that that has been worked on is called a Primula ‘You and Me Blue’ [below], and it’s what’s called a hose-in-hose.
Margaret: Yes. I love those.
Elizabeth: Yes. It’s a very hardy plant and I have two in my garden that I got from Bluestone, and I took a picture of one of them that is in the book. And so I really recommend that.
Margaret: So, hose-in-hose, it’s almost like there’s a flower inside a flower, is that how you would describe it? It’s like a flower tucked inside another flower.
Elizabeth: Exactly. And the Elizabethans used to wear two stockings, and they would turn one stocking down over the other stockings to create this sort of effect of a twosome.
Another primrose that’s available at a number of places is, I don’t really know of any common name, it’s Primula kisoana. It’s different in that it spreads, it’s rhizomatous. Most primroses are rosettes, they just sit in one little place. And you may have to divide them, but they don’t spread through runners or rhizomes.
Margaret: Right. They don’t grow sideways. Right. But kisoana, and it’s my favorite actually of all of them, and it often has like an orchid kind of lavendery-pinky colored flower. But it can be white. It can be white, too, I understand. [At Margaret’s, above.]
Elizabeth: Yes. And it has these soft, furry leaves.
Margaret: They’re beautiful, scalloped in shape and almost a blue-green. Not your typical-shaped primula leaf.
Elizabeth: Yes. And I just planted a little chunk of one and it’s spreading inside. It’s really lovely.
Margaret: Yes, Arrowhead Alpines’ catalog often sells that. That’s one that I’ve gotten at Arrowhead or sent people to Arrowhead. Yes.
Elizabeth: Yes. And there are a number of other ones that do too that I’ve found. Now, I want to put a plug in for Primula sieboldii, which is also called Sakurasou. It’s the cherry blossom primrose and it comes out of Japan, and it’s been cultivated for 400 years. It’s kind of like the auricula, it was a cult flower. But it’s called the idiot-proof primrose. [Laughter.] Sunshine Farm and Gardens in West Virginia has it available. And it’s interesting because like Primula kisoana it spreads, but it also goes dormant. If it’s too hot and it doesn’t like the conditions, it loses some leaves and it drops back and puts its energy and life into the rhizomes. And it can take every type of light and soil conditions and it’s a really exquisite addition to a garden. And it can take very, very low temperatures—Alaska.
Margaret: What about japonica? Do you like japonica? [At Margaret’s, below.]
Elizabeth: Oh, the candelabras? I have to say that they are bewitching, and I had thought my garden was too dry for them. Happiest with very, very wet feet. And if you have a stream or swamp, so much the better. But I had kind of a Primula japonica adventure this summer, and ended up with eight huge pots given to me. And I planted them under an old apple tree and so far, so good. If the conditions are moist enough and rich enough in humus, they’ll do well.
Margaret: I want to make sure to tell people about … You’ve been mentioning some of the sources and so forth, and sometimes one can only get seed. But that shouldn’t stop us, should it? Like for instance, from Barnhaven Primroses. We can’t talk about primroses without mentioning that name, can we?
Margaret: And the American Primrose Society—you have a seed exchange. So, tell us a little bit about, you grow them from seed, too, don’t you?
Elizabeth: Yes, and that’s one of the first ways I fell in love with them. I would suggest checking out the American Primrose Society website. What’s great about that is that there are a lot of resources, and there’s even the link or something that you can click on called Primula 101 and it has some of the basics about seed sowing.
And the digital membership for the American Primrose Society is only $25 a year, and once you’re a member you can go back through all the quarterlies to 1941, when Florence Bellis started her Barnhaven seed strain. And yes, you cannot talk about primroses without talking about Barnhaven. And I would also go to their website. When she retired it moved to England, and then when they retired it moved to France, and now it’s gone to a second place in France.
Elizabeth: And Jodie Mitchell and Lynne Lawson have just published “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Primula,” published by Timber Press.
Margaret: Yes. So that’s another great resource.
Elizabeth: Oh, beautiful photographs, and it shows you what’s good for particular sites, and it has all of the horticultural advice you would ever want to know.
Margaret: If one joins the society or one shops on one of these catalogs like Barnhaven, and you get seeds … So if you join the society, you can participate in the seed exchange each year. Is it important that seeds are only planted … is it only at a certain time of year that you can plant them? Must they be fresh? Are there any urgent rules of when you plant them?
Elizabeth: I don’t think there are any urgent rules, in my experience. I collect seed and I put it in my icebox, in my fridge. And some people sow fresh seed, and some people give them a cold period and then sow them in January or February or March. Yes, I sow them whenever I can. One reason I suggest browsing through the quarterlies, is that all the articles are written by home gardeners who share their experiences—what works and what doesn’t. And it’s an incredible treasure trove.
Trouble with some gardening books is the situations are so idealized. [Growing from seed, from the American Primrose Society website.]
Margaret: [Laughter.] Yes.
Elizabeth: Here you have your friends saying, “Well, that didn’t work, but then I tried this.” So with the Barnhaven book, and checking out what the American Primrose Society has to offer, you’ll be enchanted and growing primroses for the rest of your life. And they’re good plants when you get older, because they generally tend to be little and you can move them around, and for bad backs and rusty joints …
Margaret: [Laughter.] Well, Elizabeth Lawson, the book is “Primrose,” and it’s kind of a social and cultural history of them, a real deep dive into them. Thank you so much for making the time today to talk about primroses.
Elizabeth: Oh, well, thank you for your website and considering primroses.
enter to win ‘primrose’ the book
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Primrose” by Elizabeth Lawson for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the bottom of the page, answering this question:
What about you? Any primroses to recommend, or that you are growing (or want to try)?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer’s even better. Random winner will be chosen after entries close at midnight Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Good luck to all.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 22, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).