Primulas and Primroses: Facts About Beautiful Spring Flowers - Dengarden - Home and Garden
Updated date:

Primulas and Primroses: Facts About Beautiful Spring Flowers

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

A red polyanthus primrose

A red polyanthus primrose

The Joy of Spring

One of the joys of spring is the appearance of beautiful primulas and primroses in gardens, containers, landscaped areas—and if you live in the right part of the world—in the wild.

In the UK, the English primrose is one of the first plants to flower in the spring. It has lovely pale yellow flowers that have a darker yellow centre. Many of the primrose's cultivated relatives also flower in the spring. They come in a huge variety of colours and forms and are very popular.

Some people might argue that some of the colours of cultivated primulas and primroses are too vivid, unnatural, and even garish, especially compared to the delicate hues of the English primrose. I think that the cultivated flowers are a beautiful sight, though. Where I live there are lots of evergreen plants, but the predominant colours of nature in winter are green and brown. It's so nice to see the cheerful flowers of primrose relatives in the spring.

A blue polyanthus primrose

A blue polyanthus primrose

Terminology Used to Describe Primulas

It's helpful to understand the terminology used to describe primulas, primroses, and their relatives, since it can be confusing. Many hybrids have formed between the different types, which adds to the confusion.

Every living thing has both a common name and a scientific name. The scientific name consists of two words and is printed in italics. The first word in the name is the genus and is capitalized. The second word is the species. For example, Primula vulgaris is the scientific name for the English primrose and Primula veris is the scientific name for the cowslip.

All of the plants mentioned in this article belong to the Primula genus. The common name "primula" is sometimes used to refer to the species in the genus. Some flower groups in the genus are often referred to by their own common name, however. I've chosen to discuss five of these groups: the primroses, polyanthus primroses, auriculas, drumstick primroses, and cowslips.

At least where I live, the polyanthus primose is the most commonly available primula. The word polyanthus means "having many flowers". The flowers often have rich colours. Some people drop the word polyanthus from the term "polyanthus primroses", creating a wider meaning for the word primrose. Others drop the word primrose from the term.

The Lovely English or Common Primrose

In the UK, the primrose is sometimes known as the English or common primrose to distinguish it from other species of wild primroses. It's native to western and southern Europe and is found in hedgerows and open woodland. The "prim" in primrose comes from a Latin word meaning "first", which refers to the fact that primroses flower early in the year before many other plants.

I remember a beautiful scene from my childhood related to the English primrose. My family visited a wood near our home in the UK. The ground was carpeted by a mass of lovely yellow primroses. The scene impressed me at the time and has stayed in my memory.

Primrose leaves have a prominent midrib and a crinkled appearance. They form a basal rosette that lies close to the ground. The flowers emerge from the rosette on short stems and have five notched petals. Most primroses have yellow flowers, but the flower exists in a pink form as well.

The flowers and leaves of primroses are edible. They are eaten in salads and are also used to make a tea and a wine. In the UK it's now illegal to pick wild primroses or to dig them up, however. Varieties of the English primrose are sold by plant nurseries, so even people outside Europe can enjoy them if they have a suitable habitat and climate.

A pink subpecies of the common primrose

A pink subpecies of the common primrose

Some plants with the word primrose in their common name aren't members of the Primula genus. An example is the evening primrose, which belongs to the genus Oenothera.

Herbaceous and Evergreen Perennials

Wild primulas such as the English primrose are generally perennials, which means they appear in successive years. Many are herbaceous perennials. They have above-ground parts that completely or partially disappear at the end of the growing season. The underground parts survive, however, and produce new shoots in the next growing season. In evergreen primulas, the above-ground parts of the plant survive outside the growing season.

Cultivated primulas may be perennials, but some grow as annuals. In an annual plant, the above and below-ground parts die at the end of the growing season. A gardener will need to buy or grow a new plant in the next growing season if they want to enjoy the flowers again. Some annual plants produce seeds that can survive during the non-growing season and eventually germinate if conditions are right, however.

A pin-eyed yellow primula

A pin-eyed yellow primula

Pin and Thrum-Eyed Flowers

The primrose has two types of flowers—pin-eyed and thrum-eyed. In pin-eyed flowers, the stigma (the top of the female reproductive organ, or pistil) is visible in the opening at the centre of the flower. It looks like a flat, green or yellow disk. In thumb-eyed flowers the anthers (the tops of the male reproductive organs, or stamens) are visible in the centre. The anthers look like long, greenish-yellow sacs.

Each type of primrose flower has both the female and the male organs; the only difference is the length of each organ. In nature, fertilization takes place between a pin-eyed flower and a thrum-eyed one but not between flowers of the same type. Many relatives of the primrose also have pin-eyed and thrum-eyed flowers.

 A thrum-eyed polyanthus primrose

A thrum-eyed polyanthus primrose

Growing Cultivated Primulas

Cultivated primulas are derived from the wild species that grow in several European countries. Many are hybrids between different species. They come in a wide range of colours, patterns, sizes, and forms and often have more than five petals. Some even have multiple rows of petals. Many primulas have a pleasant scent.

Since there are so many different types of cultivated primulas, it's important for gardeners to check the growing requirements of the specific varieties that they buy. In general, the plants need rich soil which has a neutral pH or is slightly acidic. The soil should be moist but should also have good drainage. Soil containing humus and compost is best. Most plants grow well in a moderately cool environment with partial shade, but some varieties grow well in full sun. I've found the plants easy to grow in the mild climate where I live. Some types of primulas will grow in containers under the right conditions.

A colourful group of cultivated primulas

A colourful group of cultivated primulas

In the United States, many primulas will grow successfully in zones 5 to 9 on the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Plant Hardiness Zone Map. This isn't true for all primulas, however, so the hardiness zone should be checked when buying a plant.

Planting Primulas

Primulas can be grown from seeds, but like many people I buy them in pots and then transplant them. It's hard to resist buying a new plant when they are on display outside supermarkets in my neighbourhood. The goal of the colourful flower displays is to attract shoppers as they are about to enter the store. The trick certainly works on me. The garden centre near my home also sells interesting varieties of primulas.

I do grow some types of plants from seeds. The process is often more economical than buying bedding plants. Another advantage is that it's often possible to get a wider variety of plants via seeds than via bedding plants. In addition, there's something magical about seeing the first tiny leaves of a new plant emerging from the soil. It's hard or time consuming to get certain seeds to germinate, though.

Primula seeds take about three weeks to germinate once they are placed in suitable conditions. The American Primrose Society has instructions for growing primulas from seed for people who would like to try the process. A link to the society's website is given in the "References" section below.

A pink polyanthus primrose

A pink polyanthus primrose

Dividing a Mature Plant

When a primula plant has formed a clump of leaves after a few years of growth, it's sometimes divided into multiple plants. This usually improves its blooming ability. Some people divide the plant in late spring after flowering has finished while others prefer to do it in early fall. I've never tried dividing a primula myself, but the process seems to be quite easy.

According to people who are experienced in dividing primulas, the first step is to carefully dig around the plant and remove it from the soil with its roots as intact as possible. The plant should then be gently teased into two or more plants by hand. Any dead flowers or dead leaves should be removed from the new plants and the roots should be trimmed. Some people recommend removing any large leaves as well to avoid water loss during a sensitive time. The plants can then be placed in the soil. The process is shown and described in a video from the Northern Perennial Alliance, which is shown below.

Auriculas

The primula group consists of a large and diverse collection of plants. Auriculas are cultivated members of the genus that frequently have a colourful pattern on their petals. They were originally produced as a hybrid between two wildflowers—Primula auricula and Primula hirsuta. Today many different cultivars of auricula exist. A "cultivar" is a plant variety produced by selective breeding.

Auriculas are perennial and evergreen plants. Their fleshy leaves have no stem and are arranged in a rosette close to the ground. The leaves sometimes have a powdery white coating. The large flowers are born in a group which is positioned at the top of a tall flower stem.

The wild relatives of cultivated auriculas grow in an alpine habitat. They are sometimes known as mountain cowslips or bear's ear. The latter name comes from the shape of the leaves. The visible part of the ear in bears, humans, and other mammals is often referred to as the auricle. This fact may have given the auricula its species name.

Drumstick Primroses

The drumstick primrose is an attractive flower with a name that matches its appearance. The wild plant (Primula denticulata) is native to alpine areas of Asia. The species has become popular in a cultivated form. It has globular head of small flowers at the top of a tall stalk. The flowers are white, pink, or purple. The plant flowers in April and May. It's a herbaceous perennial.

The drumstick primrose is said to be easy to grow. Like many of its relatives, it requires moist but well-drained soil. It does best in partial shade but can tolerate full sun if it's well watered. It's hardy to zones 4 to 7. Once flowering has finished, the leaves continue to grow and spread out. The space requirement of the plant should be considered when it's planted.

Cowslips

The cowslip or Primula veris is both a wild and a cultivated primula. It bears a group of small, funnel-shaped flowers at the top of a tall flower stem. The flowers are usually yellow with orange spots near their centre, but they are occasionally red. The plant is native to Europe and Asia.

It's been suggested that the name "cowslip" originated from the plant's ability to grow in soil that is seasonally boggy and slippery. It also grows in drier areas, however, including pastures and grasslands. Another theory is that the name is derived from the slippery effect of the cow dung found in places where the plant grows. The plant inhabits areas that are less shaded than primrose habitats.

The wild cowslip population in the UK decreased dramatically between the 1950s and 1980s, mainly due to intensive farming and herbicide use. Happily, the population is making a comeback.

As is the case for the primrose, cowslip leaves are used for salad greens. The flowers are used in wines and different kinds of vinegar. They have a delightful fragrance that is used in the perfume industry. Cultivated forms of the plants are available for gardens. The Missouri Botanical garden classifies these as herbaceous or sometimes semi-evergreen perennials.

Anyone who collects plants for food must be certain of their identity and safety as well as their population status. Plants that are threatened or endangered shouldn't be collected. The plants should be gathered from an area that is free of pesticides and pollutants. Some plants should be left so that the local population can recover.

Attractive Garden Plants

There are so many varieties of Primula available in nurseries that gardeners will almost certainly find at least one flower that appeals to them. The plants aren't hard to grow, although some types are more demanding than others. Primulas and primroses are attractive and delightful plants that add a beautiful splash of colour to a garden or a container. I always look forward to seeing them in bloom.

References

  • Pin-eyed and thrum-eyed common primroses from the Devon Biodiversity Action Plan
  • Information about polyanthus primroses from the Missouri Botanical Garden
  • Facts about auriculas from the American Primrose Society (The full name of this organization is the American Primrose, Primula, and Auricula Society.)
  • Drumstick primrose facts from Cornell University
  • Primula veris or cowslip information from the Missouri Botanical Garden

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are primroses a type of African violet? Do they come from Africa?

Answer: Primroses and African violets are attractive plants, but they aren't closely related. Primroses belong to the order Ericales, the family Primulaceae, and the genus Primula. African violets belong to the order Lamiales, the family Gesneriaceae, and the genus Saintpaulia. A few species of Primula are native to Africa, but most species come from other parts of the world.

© 2013 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 30, 2014:

Thank you very much for the comment and the pin, VioletteRose!

VioletteRose from Atlanta on July 30, 2014:

Wow these flowers are so pretty! I am pinning this.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 30, 2013:

Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, DDE.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 30, 2013:

Primulas and Primroses - Beautiful Spring Flowers are some of the most beautiful flowers indeed the unique photos explains it all.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 05, 2013:

Thank you for the comment and the share, Sue! It's very nice to meet you.

Susan Bailey from South Yorkshire, UK on May 05, 2013:

Such a variety of primulas all of them so pretty. What a nice hub. Voted up and shared.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 15, 2013:

Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, oliversmum! It's lovely to see how many people like primulas. They have very appealing flowers.

oliversmum from australia on April 15, 2013:

AliciaC Hi. Primula and Primrose make such a great display in any garden. We have several all different colors,they really are beautiful.

The dog we had before Oliver was named after the English "Primrose", so it is rather special to us.

Thank you for sharing all this information with us, and the photographs are just delightful. Thumbs up and Awesome. :):)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 13, 2013:

Hi, Dianna. I agree - primroses are a beautiful part of nature! They are such attractive flowers and add extra joy to the season. Thanks for the comment.

Dianna Mendez on April 13, 2013:

I so enjoyed the walk through this garden of flowers. The primrose reminds me of the Victorian gardens of the past. What a simple piece of beauty in creation.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 03, 2013:

Thank you, ignugent17. I think that these spring flowers are lovely, too! I hope that you have a great day as well.

ignugent17 on April 03, 2013:

Thanks for the information. They are so lovely. Getting ready for spring.

Have a great day. :-)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 02, 2013:

I agree, Athlyn. They are so pretty to see! Thanks for the visit.

Athlyn Green from West Kootenays on April 02, 2013:

They are such a welcome site in the spring!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 02, 2013:

Thank you very much for the comment, wabash annie. I appreciate your visit!

wabash annie from Colorado Front Range on April 02, 2013:

The pictures of those flowers were so beautiful ... you have such a knack with photos and display. I like the original plants but also the hybrids too. Thanks for sharing!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 02, 2013:

Thank you for the comment and for sharing the beautiful story about your grandmother, Eddy. I hope your patio primroses bloom well this year. Have a great day too!

Eiddwen from Wales on April 02, 2013:

Oh thank you so very much Alicia ;I love primroses and we have many out on our patio!!!

When i was small I would go and stay on the farm with my Grandmother who was a very matter of fact and blunt character. No sentimentality at all. So when she used to pick a bunch of primroses for me and she would then tie them with a pink ribbon it meant the world.

I also put Primroses on her grave .

Thank you again Alicia and havea great day.

Eddy.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2013:

Thank you so much, drbj. I appreciate your kind comment and vote, as I always do!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on April 01, 2013:

Now, thanks to you, Alicia, I know so much about primroses I feel almost like a genuine horticulturist. And your photos are magnificent. Voted up!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2013:

Thank you very much for the comment and votes and for sharing this hub on your blog, sgbrown! I hope you have good luck if you try to grow primroses again.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2013:

Thank you very much for the vote and the share, Rebecca. I appreciate your visit and comment!

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on April 01, 2013:

Such beautiful flowers! I have tried to grow primrose here, but I think the summers here in southern Oklahoma are just too hot. I may have to give it another try to keep them in a more shaded area. Beautiful hub! Voted up, useful, interesting and beautiful! I would like to share this on my Flower Garden blog, if I may. Have a beautiful day! :)

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on April 01, 2013:

Very interesting. Around here, we usually favor the pastel shades for spring flowers and save the vibrant colors for fall. But this year, I have seen some vividly colorful pansy-like flowers used in spring landscaping. Beautiful Hub, voted so, and shared!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2013:

Hi, Deb. Yes, these flowers do make a great start to spring! It's lovely to see all the different colors and patterns.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on April 01, 2013:

Wow, what a way to give spring a nice little kickstart!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2013:

Thanks for the comment, Nell. I love sweet peas too. There are so many lovely garden flowers to choose from today!

Nell Rose from England on April 01, 2013:

Just what I needed to see with all the horrible weather that we are getting, they are just beautiful, all the color I just can't wait to start seeing ours growing, I am a sweet pea nut, we have them all over our balcony in the summer, and the smell is gorgeous, nell

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2013:

Hi, Tom. Thank you very much for the votes and the share! I love Primulas. They have such beautiful flowers.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2013:

Thank you, FlourishAnyway. It's fun to photograph primrose relatives. They are such lovely flowers!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on April 01, 2013:

Hi my friend, love this very awesome and colorful article it is so well written and informative. One year i did grow primroses in my yard, they are so beautiful .

Vote up and more !!! Sharing !

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 01, 2013:

Photos are very vivid and really add to your overall message. Lovely flowers.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2013:

Thanks for the comment, Imogen. Primroses and their cultivated relatives are lovely flowers. I miss seeing primroses in the wild. I remember seeing a huge crowd of them in a wood when I was a child in Wales. It was a wonderful sight!

Imogen French from Southwest England on April 01, 2013:

Very pretty, AliciaC. I love the English wild primroses, they look so delicate, and are a reassuring sign of spring. The cultivated primula are beautiful too, and bring a lovely early splash of colour to the garden. Nice hub :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2013:

Thank you very much for the votes and the share, Joan! Fall can be a lovely time of year. It has its own beauty. I hope you enjoy the season!

Joan Veronica Robertson from Concepcion, Chile on April 01, 2013:

Hi there, what a beautiful selection! I love flowers, and these photos show the primulas at their best. For you, Spring has arrived, we on the other hand have started Fall, so will have to wait for flowers like these! Voted up, and more, also shared. Have a good day!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2013:

Thanks for the visit and for sharing your experience with Primulas, Martin.

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on April 01, 2013:

Thank you for this. In my yard, a colorful trouble free plant.