A CONVERSATION WITH AN OLD FRIEND sent me searching deep in one overgrown border here for my forgotten plants of Primula veris—the common cowslip—which isn’t so common in nurseries after all, it seems, my friend was saying. I promptly moved the big clumps, still vigorous despite having found themselves swamped lately, from back-of-bed obscurity to front-and-center, and have enjoyed weeks of cheery bloom.
“Primula veris is the ‘English cowslip’ that was once commonly found in pastures and meadows,” says the American Primrose Society website. The plant, which extends into Siberia, Turkey and Iran, is also one of the parents of the modern polyanthus hybrids—the plant most people envision when you say “primrose.”
The species name—veris—means “of spring,” particularly apt once you’ve seen its cheerful yellow flowers held well above ample foliage.
So why aren’t we all growing this charmer—which owing to its origins in those meadows of the U.K., Europe and Asia is sturdy enough to hold its own even in competitive quarters such as those I inadvertently subjected it to?
“It is not common,” Marilyn Barlow of Select Seeds in Connecticut had said to me, prompting my search-and-rescue mission earlier this spring—for which I am grateful (and probably my plants are, too). “But it is spring personified and just all around lovely.” And then, her confession:
“Generally I can be found crawling on hands and knees to smell them,” said Marilyn, calling their fragrance “like a sweet spring breeze.”
Grow Primula veris in sun or part shade—relief from full sun in high summer is best, I think. You can start from seed (I’m imagining it sown into a grassy swath, harking back to its native haunts), or get going faster with plants. Which, thankfully, Marilyn Barlow, an old friend and longtime resource I’m proud to have an an occasional advertiser on A Way to Garden, had the foresight to propagate this year. (She sells seeds, too, for those who are patient or wanting a whole gang of cowslips. Marilyn says they’ll take 7-30 days after a chill period to germinate, so they should be sown indoors in winter, or outdoors in fall or early spring.)
When my rescues are done blooming, I may divide the fat clumps—another easy way to get more. If it’s hot and dry here by the time bloom ends, though, I’ll wait and do it in early fall.
other primroses i grow
- Primula kisoana (a bawdy orchid-pink spreader)
- Primula sieboldii (flower colors vary from white to pinks and lavender pinks)
- Primula japonica (the candelabra types; mine are deep pink)