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14 April 2021

Some look to their calendars for the start of spring – but I see it in a clump of yellow primulas

I am convinced the primula is the spring flower of my affections, but be warned: it requires constant attention.

By Stefan Buczacki

We all have our yardsticks for the arrival of spring. For some, it is simply a date on the calendar. But in our garden, it is when the yellow of a large clump of primulas first becomes visible from our window 40 metres away.

And as the years go by, I become more and more convinced that the primula is the spring flower of my affections. In large measure, this must be because my soil, despite being so light and free-draining, supports many of them particularly well. The initial digging in of large quantities of organic matter in slightly shaded positions has helped, but I am increasingly persuaded that the annual use of a deep leaf mould mulch is the best possible aid to successful cultivation of those primulas that fall into what, for simplicity, I refer to as “the primrose type”. They include our native Primula vulgaris, but also the numerous similar hybrids for which either Primula vulgaris or Primula juliae is almost certainly among the parentage.

For me, a plant of the primrose type has flowers borne singly on fairly short stems, although in my garden essentially similar growing conditions also suit polyanthus, cowslips and oxlips, which all have several flowers atop taller stems. The gems of the group are unarguably the double primroses, although those we have today are by and large modern recreations or representatives of the many historical types that have now vanished.

[see also: They might pass for humble flowers, but daisies are one of the largest of all plant families]

For herein lies the great frustration of this whole primula group, and of double primulas in particular. While they are not always difficult to keep going, they do require constant attention. They must be divided every two or three years if they are not to fade away. And the time to undertake this division is from late April onwards. Even native primroses are not immune from natural rejuvenation, and I was fascinated to read a scientific paper a while ago, in which a study had been made on a stretch of damp ditch bank at a woodland edge where primroses had grown for centuries, displaying apparent immortality. In fact, careful mapping of each clump revealed that the whole colony was in a state of constant movement as old plants died out and new ones arose, either from offsets at the peripheries or from seed.

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But having sounded this word of caution about the need to rejuvenate your plants, there are some double primulas that I have found more durable than others. Among them is the pinkish “Sue Jervis”, originally found growing in the wild, an exquisite pale yellow variety called “Val Horncastle” and the magnificent – albeit dreadfully named – egg-yellow “Sunshine Susie”. But you may have to search for them because the famous Barnhaven primula nursery, once of Cumbria and a goldmine for all things primula, moved to France. Now, having fallen foul of Brexit, it is currently not supplying plants to the UK.

But back to double primulas in the wild. Who are these people who have managed to find double forms of native plants? Primroses, snowdrops, lady’s smock… almost anything you care to name exists in double-flowered versions that some lucky soul has spotted somewhere. Yet I have spent decades studying and looking at our native plant life and am yet to find a double primrose growing anywhere in the wild. And I look in hope at each clump in our garden every spring; always to no avail.

[see also: Why a fine “tilth” – though it may be hard to define – is essential for successful seed sowing]

This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people