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‘spring personified:’ the cowslip, or primula veris

Primula veris, the common cowslipA 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)

 

  1. Meredith says:

    How fascinating! My mother had these primroses in her spring garden, and we just called them primroses–it wasn’t until years later that I realized they came in other colors. We always referred to marsh marigolds as “cow slips”, so I was surprised to see these. I wonder if it’s a regional thing–you’re downstate from us here in the southern tier counties of western NY. Thanks for an interesting post and a happy reminder of my mother’s garden.

  2. Marilyn Keane says:

    I have this primrose as a pass-along plant from my grandmother’s garden. Love them in bloom and leaf in April/May here. It’s a Spring yellow that doesn’t scream like the dreaded forsythia!

  3. My primula veris (and, elatior) have been in bloom in the Asheville, NC, garden since February and are just now finishing. They are my biggest source of joy following dreary winter scenes. They come into bloom with the Christmas rose, followed by Crocus tomasinianus and others, then Omphalodes cappadocica and a host of Pulmonarias (especially ‘Blue Ensign’) and Brunnera macrophylla. The yellow/blue combination is such a reminder of my growing up years in Austria, where primulas grew in moist meadows with Liverworts and wild tulips (T. sylvatica). Hereabouts, gardeners say it’s too warm for primulas but I have grown them now for 12 years having brought them with me from NJ. I am happy to find a source for plants and seeds through your website, Margaret, because I use them on jobs and until now, my only source is my own garden.

    1. margaret says:

      Glad to help find a source, Sieglinde. Marilyn is great – I first met her when I wrote about her or “Country Living” magazine decades ago, when I was new to garden writing and she was new to the nursery trade. Great selection.

      Hi, Sallie. There is a selection called ‘Sunset Shades,” I think…Annie’s Annuals often has it. I think maybe I did once but… :)

  4. Sallie McNeill Rynd says:

    I grow the yellow cowslip but also a red one with a yellow eye. Both are wonderful pass- a- long plants. I have been creating a primerose path on the side of my house for the past four years. Moisture, compost and mulch in the winter helps keep the plants in good vigor.

  5. linda says:

    Oh Margaret, how happy I was when I saw your picture of the primula veris. I had purchased a yellow one and a red one at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens annual plant sale a few years back – having lost the tag i wasn’t sure what it’s name was – now i know – thank you. I never dead head them and i am blessed with little primulas in my gardens the following spring. I too as Seiglinde said find them to be a big source of joy. Yes, the red one is called “sunset shades”, (just found that info on the internet).

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Linda. Maybe you and I will each have to invest in some ‘Sunset Shades’ next, though nothing could be as sweet as these plain sunny yellow guys.

  6. maureen walker says:

    But the deer seem to love them!

    As children we truly did gather cowslips from by the stream in the meadow behind our house; the same meadow from where my father and a neighbour would, morning by morning, collect the bombshells from bombs jettisoned on the Luftwaffe’s return journeys after bombing Bristol. (The datestamps on these shells gave clues to the allies as to how far into their reserves the Luftwaffe had delved.) A big thing about cowslips was the making of Cowslip Tea. Maybe someone has a recipe?

  7. Linda M says:

    I got my cowslips (Primula veris) as a few passalongs from a friend several years ago. Every year I divide some of them, and now have a lovely swath of them in a shady border where they bloom in April along with Virginia bluebells and the golden yellow celandine poppy in my Maryland garden. They don’t seem to be seeding much, which is fine with me as they are so easy to divide. They never look tatty after blooming; the withered blooms just seem to melt away. I look forward to seeing them each spring.

  8. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I just bought this plant at the Syracuse Farmers Market! I fell in love with it immediately. All I knew is that it was called English Primrose. Now I have details – thank you.

  9. Deborah B says:

    My first P. veris was a lovely pale yellow one. It’s the first primula to bloom in my garden, and then this bright yellow one and the Sunset Shades ones bloom a couple weeks later. All are in bloom now, but the pale yellow ones are on their way out. A nice feature of this species of primula is that the little sage-green crinkly leaves look decent in the summer, unlike the more fragile leaves of P. japonica which wilt and die like lettuce leaves in a dry spell.

    I got my seedlings of the bright yellow and red ones from the American Primrose Society seed exchange, which happens every winter in Jan thru March. Join the APS and then you can get seeds for up to 20 varieties for just 75 cents per variety. It’s a lot of fun, and you’d be amazed at how many varieties of primula there are. The seed exchange itself usually has around 350 species for offer in a given year.

  10. Nadia@Loveliveandgarden says:

    Oh I am SO SO glad you reminded me about cowslip. I was so intent on growing it this year and then it managed to slip my mind. In Iran, it is made into a tea that is super relaxing; more so than any other night time tea I have tried. I just love the fact its edible.

  11. Nadia@Loveliveandgarden says:

    Oh no, I made a mistake (I’m still have baby brain!). The tea is made from Echium Amoenum.

  12. Glenda Berman says:

    Growing up in England Cowslips were one of the wild flowers that bloomed in May. We would collect the flowers to put in our May Day baskets. Thank you for reminding me I shall plant some this year.

  13. Peggy Casey says:

    Thank you Margaret, for helping me think of Spring while we are in the midst of a blizzard here in Michigan today. Does anyone know, are Cowslips deer-resistant????

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Peggy. Same here — another foot or snow starting shortly. Sigh. Primulas are rated “deer-resistant,” or “seldom severely damaged” (the latter is Rutgers’ second-most resistant rating out of four categories in their search tool on the subject). Note that deer in every area have different appetites and deer will eat ungodly things like the needles off a blue spruce if they’re starving, but skip such nasty stuff if there are other goodies to take instead. But primulas are not like hostas, thankfully — not pure candy!

  14. paul zelkowski says:

    i love this plant!!! i started it from seed 30 years ago for my mom in her garden….years later i bought a house of my own …and this was the one plant that i had to have….mom past away 2 years ago…the plant has spread all over…i go see dad and he asks…what is this? i say cowslip primrose….it’s not a weed…. mom loved it. (mom always loved it in bloom) it popped up everywhere it could possibly grow. one of my favorite spring flowers!!!! thank you for posting this!!! never see it but my yard and moms!!!

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