Primroses and polyanthus: the essence of spring

Plantsman Geoff Stebbings explores and explains the beauty of spring primroses and polyanthus.

Primula 'Blue Zebra'
Primula 'Blue Zebra'
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Primroses are surely our most loved wild flower. Surprisingly common in shady hedgerows and at the edge of woodlands, the primrose has a charm unmatched by any other wild flower. Neat and dainty, it would be easy to think that the name refers to its ‘prim’ appearance. But in fact the name is from the Latin ‘prime’ meaning ‘first’, referring to the early appearance of the pastel yellow, fragrant flowers. It is so famous it has even given its name to a colour – well all know what primrose yellow is!

Spring scent-sation

Yet the humble primrose has been so popular with gardeners for so long that it has been developed into a plant that can be found in every garden centre at this time of year, becoming a traditional gift for Mother’s Day and Easter.

When buying them I always like to get my nose down to the bench so I can savour the fragrance. Some, especially the yellows, are richly fragrant while others have little scent.

Modern monsters

Primula 'Blue Zebra'
Primula ‘Blue Zebra’

And now a confession – I really don’t like the new, huge-flowered kinds with flowers like petunias. They are just too big and have lost the innocent elegance of the wild plant. In addition, some are just so big that they can’t really cope with our capricious spring weather. I prefer those with smaller flowers – biggest is not always best in my book. But then there is still a lot of variation and I had to buy the delightfully intriguing ‘Blue Zebra’ when I saw it. The colourful striped blooms did appeal to me.

What’s the difference?

This is all very well but what about primulas and polyanthus. What are they and what is the difference?

Large-flowered primula
Large-flowered primula

Well primroses and polyanthus are both primulas. Primula is the botanical name for both and for dozens of other primulas too, which grow wild all around the northern hemisphere. The botanical name for primrose is Primula vulgaris and Primula veris is our other common primula, the cowslip.

Polyanthus look very much like primroses but instead of having individual flowers on their own stalk growing from the centre of the leaves, polyanthus have a thick stem that carry a bunch of blooms well above the leaves. Otherwise the flowers look much the same and in the same range of colours.

How to look after your primroses

Although you can keep your potted primrose in the home for a week or two, they are not really houseplants and the flowers will not last long in the house, even on a sunny windowsill. New flowers will open smaller and paler than they were.

But you can help them recover by putting them outside in the garden or in patio pots where they will keep on flowering. Those with outsize flowers are best in a very sheltered spot but most others are fully hardy and will keep on blooming for many weeks and, if you leave them to grow, they should repeat the performance next spring too. In the garden they can be planted in sun or part shade.

Geoff Stebbings

About Geoff Stebbings

Geoff Stebbings trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and has worked in magazines and gardens ever since, solving gardeners' problems. He currently writes and works in Ireland where he is building a new house and creating a garden from scratch. You can see his progress at his blog www.thebikinggardener.com
View all posts by Geoff Stebbings.
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