Common names: Primrose, Cowslip
Primula is a contraction of the Latin primus which means ‘first’; this is an obvious reference to its flowering first thing in the spring. Primula veris was originally known as the ‘Firstling of Spring’ in medieval times. I note that veris is Horticultural Latin for ‘of the season of spring’ – this plant then becomes ‘First of the season of spring’.
Where did the “cowslip” come from? It’s a long story.
Botanically, the primula family and verbascum family were once thought to be related and both were called verbascum. One member of the verbascum family (called Bullock’s Lungwort) was used to treat pneumonia in cattle – the reason for this was because the thick, woolly leaves of the verbascum resembled the cattle’s dewlap (a prominent flap of skin running down the chest of the animal).
According to the Doctrine of Signatures, if a plant resembled a part of anatomy, it was useful to treat illnesses of that anatomical part. The Anglo-Saxon word for dewlap was lappa meaning a ‘lap or border’ although the Scots apparently used the word leppe. It is a short, slurring leap from there to the cow’s lappa or cowslap or cowslip.
There then was some confusion between the two verbascums and both were called cowslip (remember primula was originally classified as a verbascum) and when primula moved into its own family, it took the cowslip name with it. I told you it was a long story.
The older herbals use a variety of names for this very popular herbal plant. “Keyflower” is one – because the flowers drooping down are said to resemble a bunch of keys on a ring. “Herb Peter” is another because the drooping flowers (keys) were said to be Saint Peter’s keys guarding the entrance to heaven.
Aren’t you glad you asked?
Sun needed: Shade to part shade
Bloom color: Yellows, reds. blues, bicolors
Bloom time: Early spring
Height 8” to 24”
Planting space apart: 8” to 12”
Propagation method: Seed, root cuttings, division of fancy hybrid varieties.
Hardiness: USDA 3/4
LIfespan: 3-5 years
Soil preferred: Open well drained soil high in organic matter. No standing water
Potential disease problems: none serious
Potential insect problems: slugs
Use: spring bloomers, fragrance (some), cut flowers
This is a very large family of plants found in many different growing conditions. For the most part however, primula found in garden centers are plants of woodland or woodland edge. Some species are bog plants or mountain meadow plants but these are mostly collector plants and not easily located.
The one rule of thumb that is worth noting is that North American species will survive and grow well enough in sunlight while the Asian species demand shade if they are to be successful.
In general, the family wants a soil that is well drained yet high in moisture. Standing water will rot the crowns of the plant, particularly during the winter time.
While this soil water would be frozen in our zone 4 garden, if allowed to collect around the crown of the plant, any thawing and subsequent freezing during the winter will kill the plants. (Avoid deep mulches for this reason)
High summer humidity is excellent for this plant so shady areas with reduced air movement are excellent spots. They do not like hot summers but prefer a cooler area; grow them in the coolest part of the garden.
For the most part, they prefer a more alkaline soil so adding lime rather than peatmoss is a good starting point to amending the soil.
Compost is welcomed both for its nutritional value as well as its soil amending properties.
There are huge numbers of varieties of many different Primula species available through specialist growers. The numbers speak to the ease of breeding this plant and its delightful tendency to produce huge amounts of seed. I’ve listed some of the more easily available species – the individual varieties and hybrids are simply too numerous to mention. This is a huge family of plants – over 400 different species in the family – and while a few are the province of collectors and specialists, the majority of them make good garden plants. I’ve listed the most commonly available.
Primula allionii and varieties.
This plant will grow in the shade garden but it does not want to be exposed to hot sun at all. There are a significant number of varieties on the market of this species and every one of them shares the dislike of acidic soils. This is not a plant to be grown under evergreens or when accompanied by rhododendrons and azaleas. We have no problems with dry dormancy here in zone 4 as the ground freezes solid but if trying to grow them in a slightly warmer area, this plant wants to be kept dry during dormancy. Soggy, damp winter conditions will doom it.
These are the show class of primula that we most often see as doubles and fancy “gold” and mixed colors in catalogs. While they are fancy, they are just as easy to grow as any other form. They do not breed true so the seed you collect will likely give you something quite interesting but not identical to the parent plant. Division is the best method of propagation for maintaining the hybrid form. The wild plant is hard to find now because it has been overcollected in its native areas. These will tolerate a bit more sunshine than many forms but particularly avoid the hot noon day sun. These plants will grow nicely in a semi-shaded rock garden where adequate moisture is present. Drainage has to be perfect with this plant – it can not sit in wet, bog-like soils or it will die. These plants are often grown as potted plants because of the beauty of their flowers.
There are not too many hybrids of this species on the market here in North America and this is more the pity. Over the years, this has been one of my hardiest and most favorite of Primula. It is an Himalayan plant and demands shade and rich, organic soils. The blooms are drumstick-like (which is why the common name for this plant is Drumstick Primula) and bloom very early in the spring.
A superb plant for the dampish soil garden in sun to part shade. A mid-summer bloomer that continues to produce blooms over an extended time. Again, not often found in garden centers but worth the price if you find them.
This is one of the plants used in creating a series of hybrids called the Juliana series and these are quite hardy in zone 4 and easily grown in the shade garden. One of the earliest and still the best know of this series is ‘Wanda’ a violet colored plant that is quite tolerant of soil type as well as tolerating a bit more sun than the species. If I was being quite horticulturally correct in my plantsmanship, I would say that this entire family is called the Primula Pruhonicensis Hybrids group and the list of members is too long to fit into this book. There are two clues that you are getting a member of this family at a garden center. The first is if the tag says “juliana” in any of the description. The second is that many of the more modern hybrids come from this group so if the tag says “hybrid”, there’s a good chance the plant is from this group. This always assumes of course that the tag does not say or mention one of the other species or variety names mentioned here – especially the polyanthus names listed below under P. vulgaris.
This is the traditional yellow cowslip and one of the more easily grown yellow blooming primula in the shade.
How anyone could name this plant ‘vulgaris’ is beyond me. It comes in one of the wider ranges of colors and the breeders have worked their magic on it. To succeed with this one, simply keep it out of the sun. The breeders have used P. vulgaris and P. juliae to produce a variety of hybrids.
One such strain called polyanthus is commonly sold in garden centers and seed catalogs. With the polyanthus varieties (Pacific Giants, Regal and Posy series are some of the easily available forms) I’ve found that the yellows are quite hardy for me but the blue and red colors tend to be much shorter lived. That’s a gentle way of saying that they die over the winter almost every year. They tend to grow and flower themselves to death and while quite lovely for the first year, they rarely make the second year. I’m sure other gardeners have a better track record, particularly if they have a slightly warmer garden.
Potions and Poisons
This plant has been used medicinally for centuries. Even, if one is to believe the recipes, in the making of a particularly potent liquor called Cowslip Wine. The young leaves were eaten in salads, the flowers made into a conserve. The plant was generally used as a sedative and anti-spasmatic with the flowers used for strengthening the brain. In fact, if you read long enough, there are few ailments that this plant was not used for at one time or another – from wrinkle removal to headache relief to sedatives for nervous afflictions.
There are no concerns listed in any of the herbals so families need not worry about growing an abundance of this plant (and you’ll need an abundance to make Cowslip Wine).
Primula sieboldii – a Japanese plant – not often seen in garden centers but if you can buy seed, do so. It’s easily grown and cross-breeds like crazy. You can easily start your own little primula breeding business with this plant’s variability.