View our other publications:

Fragrant primroses—who knew?

Primula japonica is a hardy, dependable spring-blooming perennial that thrives in my east-facing garden.

Every winter I take some time to research unusual primulas for my garden. I find that most are quite hardy, easy to grow, and thrive in my moist and shady beds. I love the taller varieties that attract butterflies with their vibrant shades of orange, yellow, magenta, and pink. Here in Clarence, New York, deer are a constant threat, but, luckily, I have never found any of my primroses munched on or yanked out of the ground. 

Over the years I have added to my collection with some lovely species. One of the first varieties I started from seed was Primula japonica, known as the queen of primroses. They are definitely royalty in my garden. These dependable candelabra primroses flourish in my east-facing beds every spring, in various shades of pink, white, magenta, coral, and even some bi-colors. They grow between one to two feet tall depending on the amount of spring rainfall we receive. The flowers open in whorls at different levels on strong, upright stems. The foliage is a bright green rosette at the base of the plant, which my husband refers to as “cabbage plants.” They are quite prolific at producing seeds, so I delight in collecting them and propagating more plants every year. They will also germinate in situ. Before the seeds ripen, I can easily snip the dead flower stalks off and toss them into my compost heap to prevent reseeding. Better yet, I can harvest the seeds and donate them to the Western New York Seed Library at the Audubon Library in Amherst, New York. 

The elegant, snow white flowers of Primula sieboldii ‘Winter Dreams’ add contrast to the fresh green foliage of spring.

Another one of my coveted primroses is known as the hardy primrose (P. kisoana). I was lucky enough to get a small division from my friend Elissa’s beautiful garden in Blacksburg, Virginia, a few years ago. I need to be honest that I was attracted to its foliage first. Try to envision large velvety green leaves with ruffled margins! I do cherish the vibrant, deep rose blooms as well. It is sited on a moist slope in part sun where it thrives. I think the slope allows for abundant rainfall to flow away from the base of the plant since most primroses prefer good drainage. They will rot if left in standing water. Although I started with a small plant, it doubled in size by the next spring, which encouraged me to divide it. It also reproduces by creeping stoloniferous rhizomes creating patches of appealing foliage. 

The Siebold primrose (P. sieboldii) ‘Winter Dreams’ has brought me joy in my spring garden for some time now. I am not sure if I originally purchased a plant or started it from seed. I just know that I needed a spring bloomer for my white garden, which is north-facing and quite moist. This primula is very hardy and is easy to propagate from divisions once it starts spreading. The pure white flowers look like little butterflies floating above its stems. After it blooms, I cut back the dead flowers as well as the foliage, and in a couple weeks new leaves emerge. I use ‘Winter Dreams’ at the front of my garden borders, and the new green growth and uniquely shaped foliage always looks fresh during the summer months. It flowers abundantly, so I love to cut several stems to enjoy in a vase. 

I designed my holiday cards with this photo of Primula vulgaris ‘Belarina Lively Lilac’ this year.

A newcomer to my collection is the common Primrose (P. vulgaris) ‘Belarina Lively Lilac.’ I purchased this unusual plant from an online source. It is only a couple of years old, so I am hoping to divide it this spring. It displays a dazzling, double white blossom with bright raspberry, ruffled edges. The flowers actually look tie-dyed. It is a prolific bloomer with longlasting florets that are surprisingly fragrant. 

So what primroses will I be researching and planting in 2024, you ask? Prior to purchasing any seeds, I consider areas in my garden that are moist and shady. I have a slope in the backyard that stays pretty moist, so I am thinking about interspersing orange and yellow primroses between tufts of my lime green Japanese sedge Carex oshimensis ‘Everillo.’ Both the yellow and orange giant cowslip primrose (P. florindae) are fragrant and will fill the air with a heavenly honey scent. This is the largest primula in the genus and is one of the last to bloom. Florets develop in early summer and continue blooming until late summer. They also reseed . . . woohoo! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my newly purchased seeds germinate! 

Continuing my research for fragrant varieties (what gardener can stop at just two seed packets?), I discovered the common cowslip (P. veris) ‘Sunset Shades.’ It is a mid-to-late-spring bloomer with large umbels of nodding, fragrant flowers in shades of coppery red, yellow, and orange. They sound delightful. I can picture them thriving on a slope amongst my ostrich ferns. 

The foliage is as stunning as the flowers on Primula kisoana.

I appreciate white flowers throughout my garden, so I will be experimenting with moonlight primrose, P. alpicola var. ‘Alba’. Rosettes of long, shiny leaves support statuesque stems of very fragrant, pure white flowers. The catalog description states that the flowers are “slightly powdered.” I am not quite sure what that means, but will find out when they bloom. I am planning to add these to my white garden. Hopefully, they will play nice with my ‘Winter Dreams’ primroses. 

Lastly, I selected the candelabra primrose P. bulleyana, a very long-lived primrose that produces orange-red buds that open to golden-yellow whorls of blooms. It is a late spring, early summer bloomer and received the Award of Garden Merit from the prestigious [British] Royal Horticultural Society. I must admit that I do not have a place in mind to plant these beauties, but I will surely find the perfect spot by the time they are large enough to plant out. 

So, give primrose seeds a try and dom’t be afraid to experiment. Our Western New York winters are perfect for propagating these cool germinators. In February, I usually sow the seeds in six-inch pots or six-packs, placing each container in a sealed plastic bag. This helps to keep the soil moist. Since the seeds need light to germinate, I keep the pots in trays on my back porch. I check them weekly to be sure I see moisture on the bags. I do not let them dry out. By springtime, I have dozens of babies to pot up. Depending on how fast they grow, I can plant the primroses in my garden in the fall or wait until the following spring. 

Patience is the key when parenting primroses. First, consider where to plant these long-lived beauties in your garden. Keep in mind that any moist, shady beds, absent of standing water, will do. Then do some research. Find the varieties and colors that appeal to you. Follow the propagation instructions supplied by the seed purveyor or your favorite online source. Then plant your own collection of primroses and experience joy for years to come. 

Colleen O’Neill Nice is a horticulturalist who is passionate about plant propagation and enjoys nurturing her garden in Clarence, New York.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up for our newsletter