Add some magic to your winter and spring garden with Fairy Primroses.

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Primula malacoides 'White' Primula malacoides 'White' No winter and spring garden is complete without fairy primroses (Primula malacoides) with their abundance of flowers in dreamy colours. Plant them into any shady spots in the garden, or pop them into pots with other annuals for months of colour. Read more about growing and using them in the garden below. 

 

Fairy primroses remain firm favourites with South African gardeners for their masses of flowers throughout winter and spring. And, although they have a delicate appearance, they are tough little flowers which have dainty clusters of flowers that are carried in spirals on an erect, hairy stem, well above the dense rosettes of attractive, mid-green foliage. The flowers come in delightful shades of lilac, purple, pink, carmine-red and white, and gardeners love to use them in pots, or in flower and bulb borders. They also love to tuck them into damp areas of the garden, and in spaces which receive semi-shade to sun. Garden varieties of the fairy primrose vary slightly in height, but generally they mature at approximately 30cm in height with a 20cm spread. Named varieties include: ‘Carmine Glow’, ‘Lavender’, ‘White’, ‘Wine Glow’, ‘Pastel Mixed, Pink’, and ‘Lollipops Mixed’.

The genus Primula includes more than 400 species, which botanists have subdivided into thirty-seven sections. Primulas are distributed mostly around the Northern Hemisphere, and the vast majority are native to the high, damp meadows of the Himalayas and western China, where 334 species are found. In Burma, and Sichuan they grow at altitudes around 1,524m, occurring in meadows, damp fields, and around the mounds and shores of rice paddies. Primulas are also well-beloved spring wildflowers which adorn the European country-side in spring.

Primula comes from the Latin word “primus” meaning first, in reference to the early-flowering habit of primulas. Also the name of this wide-spread genus “Primulaceae” was taken from the Italian word “primavera “which means spring.

Primula malacoides, is commonly called the “fairy primrose” or “baby primrose”, and is a perennial species of Primula native to the Himalayas, Assam in India, Myanmar, and south-central and south east China. In China it was considered to be a weed as it would grow on the rice fields of farmers. Yet, as abundant as this “weed” apparently was in 1900’s, today, perhaps due to modern cultivation methods, Primula malacoides has become very rare in the wild.

The plant explorer George Forrest also noted that Primula malacoides was an abundant field weed in the localities of Dali, Lichang, Tengyueh and Yunnansen”. In 1908 he collected seeds which he brought back to England, and so the first primulas were grown in England, and they flowered so beautifully in cultivation that the species was quickly adopted by commercial seed growers, and within a decade became a fragrant, colourful strain which was sold to be grown in the cold greenhouses of Europe and the United States. In the early 20th Century many named strains were introduced, and Primula malacoides quickly became one of the most popular pot plants for conservatory culture. Today it remains a popular garden plant, and has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.

Primula malacoides 'Mixed' Picture courtesy www.nuleaf.co.zaPrimula malacoides 'Mixed' Picture courtesy www.nuleaf.co.zaIn the Garden:

Primulas provide relief from a somewhat barren winter landscape, and no winter and spring garden is complete without their sea of dreamy colours, and an added bonus is that they are wonderful for attracting butterflies. They make a striking edging plant and put on a brilliant show if displayed in massed flowerbeds. If used as a background for spring flowering bulbs like daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, Dutch iris and cyclamens, fairy primroses will ensure a riotous display in spring.

Scatter some fairy magic throughout your garden by tucking fairy primroses into any small spots in the garden which receive semi-shade. You can even create your own meadow garden by planting them between ornamental grass-like plants, and if space is limited, include them in mixed plantings in window boxes, hanging baskets and pots, where the primulas will add vertical accent to the arrangement. 

Cultivation/Propagation:

Primulas require cool conditions and high humidity to produce high quality plants and a general rule of thumb in successfully growing the vast majority of plants is to give them conditions that approximate those they would experience growing in the wild. This is especially true of fairy primroses which are native to woodlands and cool mountain conditions. Their broad, fleshy leaves have many stomata, and will rapidly wilt if subjected to harsh afternoon sunlight. For this reason, in hotter climates like South Africa we grow them as winter and spring flowering annuals for semi-shade.

Fairy primulas grow well almost throughout the country and are hardy to frost and low temperatures, but do not like heat together with high humidity. They do very well in the winter rainfall regions, and in the summer rainfall regions they must be watered regularly. Trays of seedlings are available from April, and in South Africa it is best to plant these no later than mid-May. If you know what colours you like, try to buy named varieties which are not yet in bloom, as planting fairy primulas ‘green’ is best.

Select planting sites which are protected from strong winds, and try to mimic their growing conditions in the wild by planting them in well-prepared beds where the soil drains well, and is rich in organic matter like compost.

If you wish to sow seeds, they can be sown into seedling trays or very well-prepared garden beds in late summer to early autumn, germinating best in soil temperatures between 18 and 22°C. You can sprinkle fine soil very lightly over the seeds, but do not plant too deep. Seeds can also just be raked, or pressed lightly into the soil. Keep the trays in a cool, shady spot until germination, which can take anything from 4 to 21 days, depending on temperatures. Your plants should start flowering within 14 to 18 weeks after sowing.

Keep the soil moist, but not sodden, and if you are growing in pots or baskets, pay particular attention to watering as fairy primroses do not like to get thirsty! Water your beds and pots early in the day to allow the leaves to dry out totally before nightfall, as this helps prevent fungal diseases.

This plant has moderate feeding requirements and should never be over fertilised. Adding a slow-release fertiliser to the potting soil or beds before planting should suffice. Alternatively, feed plants growing in garden beds with a water soluble fertiliser for flowering plants about every 6 weeks, and potted plants every 4 weeks.

Fairy primroses are easy to keep happy, and are sturdy plants which once they are established, requiring no attention beyond watering and the occasional dead heading.

Fairy primroses, especially the lavender shades, will self-seed in the garden and you will find them popping up all over the place from late summer, and these can be transplanted once big enough. If you allow your fairy primroses to seed themselves, you may never have to buy them again.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Many primula disease problems can be avoided by good cultural habits, and planting and caring for them correctly will go a long way in avoiding primula plant problems.

The most important cultural requirement is excellent drainage, since the primula roots can be damaged in winter when soil is wet or heavy. If your plants do get root rot, damping off, or crown rot, they will wilt and die. Sadly there is no remedy, and you will need to throw out infected plants, and apply a fungicide to healthy plants to try to protect them.

Disfigured and discoloured leaves and flowers indicate a viral infection. Remove affected plants and control insects that may spread the disease.

The most important fungal disease of primula is botrytis, and the cool conditions and high humidity that primulas require to produce high quality plants, also favour the development of botrytis. Botrytis blight is caused by a fungus that attacks tender parts of the plant, and symptoms on flowers include spotting, discoloration, and wilting, and buds often fail to open. It may also look as though the flowers are old and fading. Leaves and shoots show brown lesions and masses of grey spores. Severely affected leaves and shoots will die back and the leaves will drop from the plant.

To help control and prevent this disease, practice good sanitation, water early in the day, and ensure that your plants are spaced correctly to allow for good air movement around the leaves. Also, although primroses don’t like to be thirsty, in cold winter conditions they will not require as much water. If the fungus appears, spray with a fungicide.

A powdery white coat on the plants indicates an infection with powdery mildew, and white tufts or a white covering on the lower surface of the leaves indicates an infection with downy mildew.  Remove and dispose of all badly infected plants and start a regular spraying programme for the remaining healthy plants, using a suitable fungicide. To prevent infection improve ventilation, keep the roots moist but not soggy, water early in the day, and do not water the plants from above.

Primulas are susceptible to red spider mite, and any signs of fine spider webs on the plants indicate an infestation with red spider mites. These sap-sucking insects mainly appear on plants grown under glass, but can also attack garden plants. Red spider mites can be controlled with an appropriate insecticide, so contact your local garden centre for advice on how to eradicate them.

Honeydew, galls, and distorted leaves are a sign of aphid infestation which can easily be controlled with organic sprays.

Snails and slugs can be removed by hand or traps and pellets can be used.

Warning:

A few people are allergic to a chemical called "Primulin" which is found in all primula species, but especially in Primula malacoides and Primula obconica. Simply touching the hairs on the leaves of these two species may cause dermatitis or an itchy sensation not unlike poison ivy, but can also cause a severe rash, headaches or nausea. This has been somewhat bred out of newer hybrids, and relatively few people have a severe reaction. To be safe it is advised to wear gloves when handling this plant.

Always supervise babies and small children in the garden.

Primula vulgaris, also called the English or common primrose, is listed as toxic to cats, dogs and horses. This plant contains an unknown toxin which causes mild gastrointestinal upset including vomiting and diarrhoea in domesticated pets. If you suspect that your pet has eaten the plant, take them to the vet but do not panic, as the consequences appear less than mortal.

While dogs are not as susceptible to primrose poisoning as cats, they may still develop symptoms of toxicity. There have been no reported cases of death in a dog from primrose poisoning. However, it always remains a possibility.