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Garden Reads

Primrose by Elizabeth Lawson (Reaktion Books 2019)

Numerous adventures with primroses over the years, though one was more of a misadventure, inspired me to query Reaktion Books, a London-based publisher, about adding a book on primroses to its Botanical Series. This series features beautifully produced and illustrated books about important garden plants—for example, Rose, Lily, Geranium, Sunflower, Pine, Sunflower, and Weeds. Authors are encouraged to portray the biological and horticultural background as well as the social and cultural history of their subjects, an approach that appeals to me. Torn between English literature and botany in college, I pursued postgraduate work in botany (MA, UT-Austin; PhD, Cornell University), horticulture (Kew Gardens, Brooklyn Botanic Garden), and wordsmithing (MFA in nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University). Although primroses are sometimes thought of as English flowers, pioneering flower breeder Florence Bellis “Americanized” the primrose beginning in 1936 in Gresham, Oregon. She bred the now world-famous Barnhaven primroses and in 1941 established the American Primrose Society, for which I have served as vice president and president. When Bellis retired, her seed stock was moved to England and then France ( There are more than 400 species of Primula in the family Primulaceae, many of which lend themselves readily to the garden. Those mentioned by Shakespeare— the common primrose, the cowslip, and the oxlip—are among my favorites. Others, like the Japanese primrose (P. japonica), a candelabra type with whorls of blooms, create tapestries in many shades of pink, red, salmon, and white, easily naturalizing in damp settings. Siebold’s primrose (P. sieboldii), also from Asia, has lacily indented flowers that from a distance look like clouds of butterflies. Some say the doubles are the most beautiful. They are readily available in garden centers in the Belarina strain (‘Nectarine’, Pink Ice’, ‘Spring Sun’, ‘Valentine’, etc.). And then one must have in one’s garden the bewitching gold- and silver-laced hybrids first developed in the seventeenth century and the anomalous forms (hose-in-hose, etc.) treasured by the Elizabethans. Primroses make ideal garden plants: they don’t take over, they are easy to divide, and as harbingers of spring they inspire us to open the garden shed as the snow melts.

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