THE PRIMROSE PATH
The other day I was at my local mega-merchandiser’s 9,000,000-square
foot store looking for a prosaic yet essential staple of the
indoor garden—potting soil. Fortunately for me, othe really
big bags were at the rear of the cavernous indoor nursery
area. Trudging towards those distant sacks, I spotted a fully
loaded merchandise cart bearing scores of potted primroses
in an array of brilliant colors. In my current flower-deprived
state, I felt as if I had stumbled into a Tournament of Roses
Parade float. I almost flattened three hardware-laden shoppers
in my attempt to grab a pot or two of spring.
“Primrose” is one of those words, like “rose” and “lily”
that has been tossed around for centuries and tends to stick
wherever it lands. You may have a pink or yellow-flowered
something in your garden in the summer that you and possibly
the garden center call “Missouri Primrose” or “Evening Primrose”.
As flowers go they are lovely, but they are really imposters
on the lam from the genus Oenothera, living under an assumed
True primroses, whether they spring up in the garden
in May or on the mega-merchandisers’ shelves in January, are
members of the genus Primula. The ones that I leaped at were
florists’ hybrids, also known as Primula acaulis, or more
properly, Primula vulgaris. Thanks to enterprising Canadian
growers, they always seem to land in the stores at this time
of year, just in time to quench the post-holiday thirst for
color and life.
Like most primulas, mine features a rosette of dark,
green leaves that are roughly oval shaped. My husband thinks
the leaves look like Romaine lettuce leaves. They are pleasant
to look at, but undistinguished. The flowers of my Primula
vulgaris grow up from the middle of the plant, perched on
Being a lover of all things yellow, I snatched up a primrose
with buttery double blossoms. Primroses also come in various
shades of rose and magenta as well as a dark, velvety blue-purple.
Some plants bear flowers with distinctive white central “eyes”.
As with all supermarket or mega-merchandiser plants, pick
a primrose that has lots of fat buds on it. It will last much
It is hard to kill one of these tough specimens, but
it can be done. Almost all primulas deplore dryness, so water
before the soil in the pot gets completely dried out. Don’t
put the primrose in a south-facing window. Too much light
will burn the leaves, and create a sorry spectacle. Keep the
plant damp and a little shady, and it will keep you in blossoms
for a long time. Even when the primrose is between bloom cycles,
you will know it is flourishing because the plant will be
produce new tiny light green leaves from the middle of the
Primula vulgaris is like a silk scarf—it adds a lot of
color with very little effort. I think primroses look beguiling
grouped in separate pots or in one large planter. Being basically
woodland plants, they might also do well in a covered terrarium.
In the summer, they can vacation outside on a porch or balcony,
or go right into the ground. I have frequently overwintered
store-bought primulas in my Zone 6 garden. They come back
with vigor in the spring, and usually produce offspring within
a year of being installed. The offspring look just like little
lettuces, and are easily separated from the parent plant.
Theoretically a thrifty gardener could start with one little
$3.59 primrose from the grocery store, and by careful cultivation
and division end up five years later with a fully stocked
border of primroses. Stocks and bonds may bounce up and down,
but a primrose is a good investment in any year.
Primroses should be on merchandisers’ shelves for four
to six weeks now, and they are the quintessential impulse
purchases. Buy one as a lovely impromptu gift to yourself
or someone else. Even children are taken with them. I pick
one up in the supermarket every other week or so for an infusion
of joy amidst the coffee and corn flakes. Eventually I will
tuck my supermarket specials in shady corners of my garden,
where they will surprise me with shows of blossoms at unexpected
times. Somehow I think I could buy potted primula vulgaris
every spring for the next forty years and never grow tired
of them, or fill up all the out-of-the-way spots in my borders.
Roses and orchids may get the big publicity, but primroses
are enduring stars.