Pretty Primroses — Love ’em and Leave ’em

February 5, 2009 | By | Comments (10)

Do you feel guilty when pretty flowers die? Then primroses might be the plants for you. Like super-novae, their magnificent blooms burn brightly for a short time. Then when the weather warms, most kinds die. And since you can’t prevent it, there’s nothing to feel bad about.

Think of them as bottles of fine wine. Enjoy the experience for a s long as you can. When the bottle’s empty, chuck it — and move on to something else.

Now the Grump is fully aware that perennial primroses exist. Here in the Lower South, if you’re a dedicated gardener, you can coddle our native primroses, the sulfur-yellow oxlip (Primula elatior) and the bright-yellow (and sometimes red or apricot) cowslip (P. veris). Those in the Middle and Upper South can also try the sensational candelabra-flowered Japanese primrose (P. japonica), featuring blooms of red, pink, white, and purple; and the polyantha primrose (P. x polyantha), the type sold by the hundreds every Valentine’s Day possessing intensely colored blooms of scarlet, rose, pink, blue, purple, white, yellow, crimson, orange, and everything in-between. However, polyanthas really hate long, hot, dry summers. They’d do better in our mountains where summer nights cool off. English primrose (P. vulgaris) is a better bet. It has lots of colors, like the polyantha, but takes more heat.

But perennials aren’t my subject today. What I want to get you excited about are two species grown as annuals. They’re beautiful right now and will give you weeks of exuberant color inside, so you can stop obsessing over the stock market.

Malacoides_2 The first one, fairy primrose (P. malacoides), is a Grumpy favorite. Unlike a polyantha primrose whose short-stemmed blooms sit down atop the foliage, this one bears lacy whorls of pink, rose, red, white, or lavender blossoms atop multiple 8- to 15-inch stems. Dozens and dozens of flowers open in clusters from bottom to top. The flowers nearly hide the foliage. You can easily fit several of these compact plants atop a small end table.

The second one is also a gem, but suffers from a stupid name. It used to be called poison primrose, because its sap contained a chemical that irritated the skin. As you might imagine, that severely constrained the Valentine’s Day potential. (“Here, honey, this poison primrose reminds me of you. Feel like going upstairs?”) Fortunately, breeders bred out the irritant. Then they did what breeders usually do and gave it another stupid name.

Obconica_2 Today, it’s called “German primrose” (P. obconica), even though it comes from China, not Germany. I can only assume when those breeders go out to eat that their favorite dish is kung-pao knockwurst.

Anyhoo, German primrose is a knockout, not a knockwurst. Clusters of large, showy flowers, many over an inch wide, adorn multiple, foot-tall stems. Colors range from orange and salmon to white and lavender. One cool feature — the blooms of some lighten in color as they age, so the primrose looks like two different plants.

Both primroses love the cool temps of late winter and early spring. They like bright light, but don’t need direct sun. You can keep them blooming for weeks in a cool room (temps 65 and below, dropping into the 50s at night) or you can place them on a porch or deck, as long as you don’t expose them to frost. Keep the soil moist at all times. If the plants wilt, don’t panic — water thoroughly and they’ll perk up. Remove spent flowers and stems as they occur. No need to feed — they won’t live along enough to benefit.

As soon as it gets too warm, these plants will stop blooming and lose their appeal. Toss ’em out. Don’t feel bad. Love ’em and leave ’em. Be the Jennifer Lopez of plants.


Look for annual primroses at garden centers and greenhouses now. As for perennials, you’ll find lots of cool species offered by someone who knows a whole lot more them than the Grump — Barry Glick of Sunshine Farm & Gardens in West Virginia. And Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, NC (boy, have I been giving them some press lately) sells “exceptionally heat tolerant” hybrids of Primula vulgaris in a wide range of colors.


  1. Grumpy Gardener

    Lots of free primroses delivered straight to my door in full bloom every day.

    March 1, 2009 at 9:55 am
  2. Sylvie

    hey, Grump, they are native from somewhere, and they are lovely (and some are adorable toughies – what else does one want?)

    February 27, 2009 at 9:52 pm
  3. Grumpy Gardener

    Oh, the horror! You have caught the Grump in an error. It is true — cowslip and oxlip are not native to the U.S. I am error and imperfect. All imperfection must be sterilized. There can be no exceptions. I must carry out my prime function. Sterilize, sterilize… sterilize…

    February 21, 2009 at 10:49 am
  4. Sylvie

    I love primroses. In my Virginia Piedmont garden, cowslips and oxlips (neither of which by the way is native to the US although they came several centuries ago with the colonists), the japonica and the sieboldii, all do remarkably well… years after years. Vulgaris are off and on (the older cultivars do much better). Other species have lasted only season or two due to our lack of snow in winter, erratic temperatures in winter and summer heat. But I love them all. Even the “supermarket primroses” (mostly polyanthus) which have been bred for fast color and then to die.
    They are a treat, and everybody should try them.

    February 20, 2009 at 6:56 pm
  5. Jean

    No..I think..University of Alabama! Auburn…noooo.

    February 10, 2009 at 5:59 am
  6. Grumpy Gardener

    Maybe they were developed at Auburn.

    February 9, 2009 at 3:51 pm
  7. Jean

    Being a florist I take the plants past their prime to put in the garden.There are primroses planted in the azalea bed that come up every year..and they are now up. No idea what kind they are but I do know they are tough!I am always amazed that they come back and bloom.

    February 9, 2009 at 7:39 am
  8. Helen @ Gardening With Confidence

    You’re garden mission statement is up at Gardening With Confidence – check it out and Thanks! Helen

    February 8, 2009 at 5:57 pm
  9. Grumpy Gardener

    Was it a “poison primrose”? Is your neighbor still talking to you?

    February 6, 2009 at 10:25 am
  10. Delfina

    Bought a primrose once.(on sale.) gave it to my neighbor.

    February 5, 2009 at 9:09 pm

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