Common Primroses are hard to ignore

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Primula acaulis mixed bicolour. Picture courtesy acaulis mixed bicolour. Picture courtesy Primroses are little gems which are hard to ignore when in full bloom.

The wild primrose is a cheerful little flower with its pretty pale yellow flowers with orange-yellow centres, peeking above a rosette of fat, wrinkled leaves - like a little splash of sunshine in a bleak wintry world. Although they often flower in winter, primroses are synonymous with spring, and in their countries of origin are one of the first wild flowers to show their faces - even their name derives from the Latin for “first rose”.

This makes them a real favourite with gardeners, and commercially they are marketed as bedding plants, potted house plants and perennials. These little gems may only grow +-12cm tall and 15cm wide, but they are hard to ignore when in full bloom and covered in a profusion of intensely coloured flowers in every colour except green, and if you pick the flowers for your first spring posies - for each blossom plucked, another long scrolled bud springs up.

The Primula family is very large and diverse, and species may vary greatly in shape, size and form, and exist in widely differing environmental, climatic and atmospheric conditions. They can be found growing in the wild throughout most of the temperate regions of Western Europe, including Britain, from Norway south and east to North Africa and Western Asia.

Historically, primula were difficult to produce commercially and were short lived in the landscape, with a limited range of garden colours available, but breeding programs throughout the last twenty to thirty years have greatly improved its attributes, and today Primula vulgaris hybrids produce even more blooms, and these strains can be single or double-flowered but maintain the form of the beautiful old 'named' primroses, most of which have now vanished. These newer strains are stronger in constitution and much more enthusiastic in performance. A Polyanthus primula is very similar to Primula vulgaris -but with one major difference. The bunched ‘clusters’ of Primula vulgaris flowers are borne on stems, and are not ground hugging like polyanthus primulas. Hence their common name, “stalked primroses”.

The ancient Greeks named the flower "paralisos" after a youth who was said to have died from grief after the sudden death of his sweetheart, Melicerta, whom the gods were thought to have turned into a primrose or cowslip. Shakespeare first wrote of it in his play Hamlet, using it as reference to a path of uncertain pleasure, he also used the primrose as a symbol of death in the play Cymbeline. Catholics link the common primrose to both St Agatha and St Bertulf, and it is also known as "our lady's keys" as it is thought to represent the keys held by Mary Mediatrix, which opened the store houses of heavenly grace.

In ancient times Primula was believed to be a flower originating in Paradise, with the five petals representing birth, initiation, consummation, repose and death, and a primrose with six petals is said to bring luck in love and marriage. This small blossom was also considered a symbol of safety and protection, and it was said that if primroses were placed on a doorstep it would encourage the faeries to bless the house and all who lived there, so posies would be left for them there. A German legend tells of a little girl who found a doorway covered in flowers and when she touched it with a primrose, it opened up into a beautiful enchanted castle. Ancient Celtic wisdom associates seeing a large patch of primroses with a gateway or portal into the faerie realms, and another old superstition claimed that if you ate the blossoms of a primrose you would see a fairy, so children would eat the flowers copiously, hoping and believing to see them.


The flowers are edible, raw or cooked, and make an attractive garnish for salads. They are often made into jams and fresh flowers are fermented with water and sugar to make a very pleasant and intoxicating wine.

Because the leaves are often available all throughout winter, young leaves were often used a potherb and added to soups, stews etc. They have a mild flavour, but the texture can be a bit tough. The flowers were once popular in the dish known as "primrose pottage", which featured rice, almonds and honey, saffron and ground Primrose flowers. An infusion of the petals was also made into primrose tea.

In the past primroses were thought to be a powerful medicine for treating painful conditions such as paralysis, rheumatism and gout, and the leaves were used to dress wounds.

In the Garden & Home:

In cooler regions primroses are valuable garden perennials which seed themselves freely in the shade garden. In hot summer regions they are grown as winter and spring flowering annuals, and planted together with other annuals and bulbs for a spectacular spring show. Primroses favour growing on shady banks and under hedgerows, doing exceptionally well when planted underneath deciduous trees, where they receive winter sunshine but are sheltered from the heat of summer. They are essential in romantic and cottage gardens, but with the right combination of plants, can look just as stunning in a modern garden. Try massing them as a border to the spring garden, or plant them in pots, window boxes and hanging baskets, combined with other spring beauties.

These are great plants for the early pollinators and will attract butterflies and moths to the garden. In season they are available in tiny pots for indoor decoration, so if you love them but don't have a garden, you certainly can have at least one primrose!


Common primroses prefer cool, humid climates, and do well in maritime situations. Under these growing conditions they are perennials, and although they love to bask in the spring sunshine, as the weather warms and the last flowers fade, the plants need to be kept cool and in the shade. In hot regions they are discarded for summer blooms.

Primroses will adapt to most garden soils, acid, neutral and alkaline. The soil may be light (sandy), medium (loamy) and even heavy (clay). For the best results, try to emulate a forest floor with damp, moist, cool soil which is rich with organic material like leaf litter. Water regularly and deeply, as the plant has shallow roots and prefers soil that is consistently moist, but not soggy. Primroses are of course fully hardy and will self-seed freely in the garden producing a lovely mixture of colours. For spectacular results apply a liquid fertiliser for flowering plants once every fortnight during the growing season.

Primulas are quite tolerant of being transplanted, even when they are in bloom, and newly purchased plants can be planted out into the garden in early spring. They must be planted so that their crowns are at soil level and at least 15cm apart.
Older plants can be divided and transplanted right after they are finished blooming. Spread a 1cm layer of compost or leaf mulch around them to keep the roots cool and moist. Mulch is important especially in climates with hot summers. Don't apply more than 1cm at a time, as a thick layer of mulch provides a convenient hiding place for slugs.

Although most gardeners prefer to buy their primroses in trays or small pots, they can also be grown from seed, which is sown in seedling trays in early spring, on a seed bed of moist peat moss which has been layered over sterile potting soil. The seeds are very tiny, so do not cover them! The tray must then be chilled in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 weeks, after which it must be kept between 15 to 20°C during germination, which takes anything from 1 to 3 weeks. During germination maintain moderate moisture levels, never allowing the soil to dry out or to become saturated. A sheet of clear plastic or glass placed over the tray will help to retain moisture until the seeds sprout, at which time the cover sheet should be removed.

Following germination, reduce moisture levels somewhat, allowing the growing medium to dry out slightly before watering, this helps promote rooting. Transplant the seedlings into individual pots when they are about 5cm tall, and place in a cool, shady place. They will be ready to bloom the following spring.
Primrose plants can be grown indoors if you are able to provide them with cool night temperatures between 10 to 15°C, and daytime temperatures below 26°C. They also require filtered sun and moist soil. When they have finished blooming in the house it is best to discard the plants or plant them into the garden.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Watch out for slugs and snails as well as aphids and mites. Spray with insecticidal soap spray if you notice pests. Insecticidal soap spray is useful because it kills only on contact, and has no residual effect that kills bees and other beneficial insects. However, the spray must be reapplied every five to seven days. Spray the plant thoroughly, wetting both the tops and bottoms of the leaves.


Primula vulgaris is non-toxic to humans but it is always advisable to keep young children from eating any plants. It is toxic to cats, dogs and horses, causing mild vomiting.