Grow Primulas in Your Wildlife Garden

In springtime a walk in the countryside never seems complete for me without a glimpse of a bank of rich, creamy primroses, or the subtle haze of yellow cowslips on a roadside verge.  The wild Primulas are amongst many people’s favourite wildflowers and certainly feature in my top ten.  They are cheerful early blooms and when seen en masse evoke an era when the countryside was a gentler, more wildlife-friendly place.  For those of us who miss them on our country walks it is good to know that they are amongst some of the easiest wildflowers to grow in the garden. We only have 5 species of wild Primula in this country but each one is a gem.  Most of us are familiar with two of them – the primrose and cowslip - but the others are equally beautiful.  All are wonderful garden plants, but only the cowslip and primrose are easily obtainable from wildflower nurseries or garden centres.  The Primulas are adaptable in terms of the conditions in which they will grow, making them valuable and versatile garden plants.  An added bonus is their ability to thrive in grass, which means they are perfect for many different situations - meadow areas, in light shade under trees or on grassy banks. More good news is that the seeds of these plants should be sown now in the coldest weather for good germination.

Primrose – herald of spring   We tend to think of the primrose (Primula vulgaris) as a woodland or hedgerow plant and although it does prefer a shady position it will cope in the garden in either sun or shade as long as the soil retains some moisture.   In hot dry conditions it will wilt and sometimes lose its leaves, but has the ability to revive itself once soil moisture has been restored as, like the cowslip, it dies down to a resting bud in mid summer.  Although the primrose blooms in spring, the odd flower can sometimes be seen as early as January.  Folklore however tells us that a primrose in flower in the winter can foretell ill health or even a death in the family.  In fact, all members of the Primula family have a wealth of ancient folklore surrounding them, much of it amusing and even bizarre!  Country folk believed that the number of primrose flowers taken into a house in the spring would determine the number of chicks that hatched from under their broody hens.  It was also thought that primroses planted upside-down would bear pink flowers!  Folklore aside, in the garden this is an invaluable plant, able to thrive in places where other plants may not and its subtle yellow flowers cheer us as spring approaches.  

Cowslip – a perfect plant?   Cowslips (Primula veris) flower from April into May and for me are the most versatile and attractive of the group.  The fact that they have a wonderfully sweet, subtle scent makes them even more valuable in a garden situation and they are perfect for containers.  Any fledgling wildflower gardener could do no better than add a few cowslips to their garden. This versatile species will grow in sun or light shade, any soil type and will hang on in the driest soils.  In a bog garden however, they will reach a height of 30cms or more and produce large fragrant blooms to rival any more exotic bog garden Primula.  They look at their best in grass and will survive even the dreaded rye grass lawn, where many wildflowers will flounder and disappear over time.  The cowslip will exhibit no such fleeting behaviour but will seed and increase in number until a cowslip meadow is produced.  A lawn area like this can be left to its own devices through spring and early summer.  After the cowslips have flowered, the whole area can be cut and raked, and then mown in the summer months, as the dormant cowslips will happily cope with this rather savage management.  You can even spread your cowslips by taking dried cuttings – grass and flower stalks – and leaving them on another area of short grass, where the seeds will fall and germinate in the following spring.


Scottish Primrose, Birdseye Primrose and Oxlip   The remaining three native species are less well known but all very attractive.  The rare Scottish primrose (Primula scotica) has a cluster of dark purple flowers with a yellow eye.  It can only be found along the north coast of Scotland and Orkney on sandy soils where the drainage is poor.  It thrives in a container if these exacting soil conditions can be maintained, and is sometimes found in the alpine section of garden centres.  Birdseye primrose (Primula farinosa) is another northern plant, this time having soft pale pink flowers.  It too prefers a soil that remains moist.  The true oxlip (Primula elatior) only survives in the wild in a few habitats in East Anglia.  It naturally grows in damp situations on clay soils and can be found in woodlands, ditches and sometimes in moist grassy meadows.  The key to this species establishing successfully in the garden is a clay soil.  In spite of its preferences it is well worth growing, as the elegant pale yellow flowers are large, clustering on top of a branched stalk.  In fact it looks rather like a collection of primrose flowers on top of a cowslip stalk.  This appearance gives rise to confusion as the ‘false oxlip’ is indeed a hybrid between cowslip and primrose.

Although there are only 5 species of Primula in Great Britain, there are plenty of naturally occurring hybrids between the species, the false oxlip being the most common.  This is a very promiscuous group of plants!  If you grow Primulas in your garden the odd hybrid is inevitable.  There is a great deal of variation amongst these hybrids but most are worth keeping, and be prepared for a selection of strange colours if you also grow polyanthus!  These were originally derived from false oxlips plus later hybridisation with a few other species, to create the amazing selection of colours we see today.  The polyanthus varieties really do show us just what versatile plants the Primulas are.

In terms of their wildlife attracting abilities, sadly the Primulas are not amongst the best wildflowers.  They are visited by a few early bumblebees and the occasional butterfly, but do not attract the swarms of insects that other groups do.  In the wild in a few woodland habitats the gorgeous Duke of Burgundy fritillary butterfly uses cowslip and primrose leaves as its caterpillar food plant, but sadly this is a very rare butterfly that very few would see in their gardens.  Perhaps we have to be content with growing these wildflowers for their beauty alone.  I, for one, am perfectly happy with that.

Growing Primulas from seed  All Primulas need a period of cold, frosty conditions and temperature fluctuations before the seeds will germinate.  Let nature do this for you and sow the seed in autumn or winter.  Use a small seed tray or pot with a peat-free loam based compost, firmed gently.  Sow the seed evenly and cover with a little horticultural grit.  Leave the tray outside through the cold winter weather, checking from time to time to ensure that the compost has not dried out.  In early spring germination will occur, but the seeds should be left for some time to develop a few crinkly leaves before they are potted up.  Allow them to grow on a little and develop a good root system before they are placed in their final positions in border, meadow or lawn.  Once established they will seed and spread with profusion.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017