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annual gardening, annual garden design
THE PRIMROSE PATH

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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

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 name.

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 3-inch stems.

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 longer.

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 rosette.

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.l

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