No Bed Of Primroses

THE REAL DIRT

February 06, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Of all the plants I've never grown, the primrose is my favorite.

It's a handsome perennial, beloved by poets and heralded in song and verse. William Shakespeare trumpeted its charm. So did Jerry Wallace, whose recording of "Primrose Lane" sold a million copies in 1959.

I have that record. I also have an anthology of the Bard's best-known works.

What I don't have are primroses. Pity. The plants will bloom soon, struggling up through the cold in a rainbow of colors beside the crocuses and early tulips. But not in my garden.

I like primroses but have never grown them. Maybe it's because this antique flower is shoved to the back of most garden catalogs. The primrose also keeps a low profile along roadways where, unlike marigolds, geraniums and petunias, it has never caught the fancy of gas stations, banks and fast-food joints.

The fact is, primroses are vastly underutilized in this country, where many gardeners believe the plants have thorns, are hard to grow and are too old-fashioned for today's modern flower beds.

Misconceptions, all. But old habits die hard.

The plant's name is itself confusing. Primrose, which means "first flower" of spring, is not a rose at all, nor is it as difficult to cultivate. It was the first wildflower to be tamed in medieval times, when gardeners brought primroses inside castle walls as houseplants.

The rich, five-petaled flowers, which thrive in cool shade, were once used medicinally to cure everything from insomnia to freckles. Primrose pudding was a favorite dessert in 16th-century England, and American settlers brewed a tasty muscatel-like wine from the blossoms of cowslips, a wild and fragrant primrose that is still grown today.

Early hybridization of the plant was triggered by fierce competition between Flemish weavers, who, to decorate their shop windows, placed their best primroses there. To achieve these showpieces, they tinkered with the plants' chemistry.

Celebrities keen on growing primroses include Thomas Jefferson, who grew them in his garden at Monticello, and Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th-century British prime minister. Disraeli, in turn, sold Queen Victoria on the primrose to the point where the pair swapped plant specimens privately for more than a decade.

"There is a charming simplicity to the primrose that people really respond to," says Maedythe Martin, editor of the newsletter of the American Primrose Society. "And there's a wide range of plants to capture one's imagination, whether 3 inches tall or 3 feet in height."

Most store-bought primroses grow to less than 6 inches. Yet even the smallest plants produce spectacular blossoms. Imagine finger-sized plant with a 3/4-inch flower.

The primrose is among the hardiest of flowers, says Cathy Umphrey, who grows them at her home in Annapolis.

"I have a white variety that had buds on it last month, in the snow," she says. "Almost all primroses can take the cold [they grow beside glaciers in Alaska]. It's the heat that causes problems."

Primroses hate hot, dry weather, so place them in moist, woodsy loam, or beneath evergreen shrubs for best results.

Most gardeners purchase primrose plants in early spring, at nurseries or supermarkets. These plants are often less hardy than those raised from seed. However, carefully selected store-bought plants can return the next year, Ms. Umphrey says.

"Primroses in basic colors, like white and yellow, are more likely -- to come back again," she says. "Also, look for plants with smaller flowers, where each flower has its own stem, as opposed to stems with lots of flowers coming off them."

The primrose is a perfect foil for any spring bed laced with tulips and jonquils, she says.

"It's so nice to have something blooming in early spring besides crocuses, daffodils and those other bulbous flowers with all the grassy foliage.

VTC "It's good to see primroses, which grow horizontally, with all that vertical stuff."

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