Antique Primroses Make a Comeback

Antique primroses make a comeback



For many gardeners, primroses mean spring is on the way. The first cheerfully blooming plants are snapped up as soon as they appear in January to brighten pots and containers. By February, beds and borders spill over with primroses in sparkling shades of red and pink, yellow and white, purple and blue. In March, those first primroses are still going strong with no sign of fading.

Fragrant, pretty and easy to grow, primroses are favorite plants of new gardeners. Advanced gardeners avidly collect uncommon Asian species as well as fancy European hybrids. In the highest horticultural circles, antique primroses treasured by English and continental plant societies are still cherished hundreds of years after their first appearance.

Those antique forms have been lost and regained many times over the years. Traditionally propagated by division, the original stocks grew weaker as viruses and various other diseases won out. Breeders have periodically helped to rekindle interest in these less typical flower forms, making them recurrently popular.

Among the most prized are the fluffy, double-flowered primroses that occur both with Primula vulgaris and P. polyantha (now P. x tommasinii). Both were once common hedgerow flowers that are still found throughout England, despite the loss of most heritage hedges.

Today, we can grow a host of double forms, which vary from demure to brazen. Buttercup yellow ‘Sunshine Susie’ has pretty, tousled double flowers that stand up well above the vivid green foliage. Shy, nodding heads of ‘Quaker Bonnet’ have delicately doubled petals of the soft lavender tint our ancestors called "dove grey" and which was much favored by maiden Quaker ladies.

If you want a punchier statement, look for ‘Miss Indigo,’ a crisp double whose intense, saturated blue petals have clean, white edging. You may prefer ‘Granny Graham,’ whose deep toned double petals are the violet blue of a summer midnight. For contrast, add in some flaming ‘April Rose,’ a deep red double-primrose with upstanding flowers.

For a subtle look, blend the soft yellow double ‘Val Horncastle’ with ‘Dawn Ansel,’ a double white with ruffled petals like foamy lace.

Any or all of these primroses grow readily in pots and containers and will bloom from late winter through spring. All can be divided in fall, just like the single primroses discussed in last week’s column.

My own favorite form is a different kind of double, the Primula polyanthus ‘YOU and ME’ series, a quaint sport called hose-in-hose. This form was extremely popular in Elizabethan times, and the name refers to the way gentlemen of the royal court wore two pairs of long stockings (or hose) at once, the outer pair folded down to reveal the inner.

In the same way, hose-in-hose primroses offer double delight, with one long-necked single flower nested in the throat of another. Seen from the side, hose-in-hose primroses look neatly stacked, one within the other.

Years ago, I inherited a good collection of these uncommon primroses, which are rarely commercially available and only from specialty nurseries. Over time, I gave mine away or lost them in various garden moves. Thus, I was very pleased to find hose-in-hose primroses grown from a newly developed seed strain — the ‘YOU and ME’ series.

These splendid little treasures are the handiwork of several European hybridizers, who worked for years to stabilize the gene that makes hose-in-hose double flowers.

During the 1920s and ’30s, an Oregon breeder, Florence Bellis, also tried to create a stable seed strain from some of her still famous Barnhaven hybrids. She never achieved better than a 50 percent double rate for her selected seedlings, and it took another 40 years for a Czech genetic researcher, Otka Plavcova, to isolate stable breeding lines of hose-in-hose primroses in varying colors.

During the 1980s, one of Europe’s most adventurous seed companies, Sahin, took this initial work further. Sahin has created a dozen distinct colors of stable, fragrant hose-in-hose primroses that make sturdy and vigorous plants.

This seed is extremely limited in distribution, with only three growers allotted shares in England. In the United States, only Log House Plants of Cottage Grove, Ore., has the right to grow and distribute these delightfully different primroses.

This year, about seven or eight hose-in-hose colors are available in the ‘YOU and ME’ series, including silvery white, a buttery cream, citrus yellow, warm golden yellow, rosy pink, clean red, dark purple and even a blue, though the latter is in very short supply. Most have golden throats, some marked with bands of red or white, and some have tidy white edging like a sliver-lace primrose. All are fragrant, and all hold their flowers well above the foliage.

Still in the experimental stages are other blue shades, salmon and soft pinks, and a sizzling fire-engine red that promises to wake up any garden come spring. If you want to try these hose-in-hose primroses, check with your favorite nursery. However, supplies are still quite limited.

Log House Plants sells to independent retailers in Oregon and Washington. You can find a list of retail locations on the company’s Web site, Log House also sells nationally through Jackson and Perkins (

Ann Lovejoy, a free-lance garden and food writer, can be reached via mail at: 9010 Miller Road N.E., Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. Her latest books are "Ann Lovejoy’s Organic Design School: A Guide to Creating Your Own Beautiful, Easy-Care Garden" (Rodale, 280 pages, $35) and "The Sage Garden: Flower and Foliage for Health and Beauty" (Chronicle Books, 144 pages, $17.95).