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Primula for the Midwest: Five Easy Favorites
by Gene E. Bush       #Flowers   #Red   #White   #Yellow

Primrose, cowslip, oxslip — no matter what you call them, these old-fashioned favorites are easy-to-grow early spring bloomers. Here a few to consider for your own shady garden.

I cannot imagine my Midwestern shade garden without the presence of primula. Over the years they have been consistent in both beauty and performance. It has always been a mystery to me why I do not see primula used more often in regional gardens.

Primula will survive and bloom in less-than-ideal conditions, but for best performance in the garden, a bit of preparation before planting goes a long way toward ensuring success. Locate your bed where it will receive shade, as the following primula are primarily woodland plants. The ideal sun would be an eastern exposure where they will receive morning light. Primula should be protected from the heat and harsh glare of an afternoon exposure.

Although woodland primula can be found in a wide range of soils in their native habitats, some attention should be given to garden soil before planting. The ubiquitous “moist, well-drained, with humus incorporated” serves well. Mulch is important for success with primula. A layer of mulch protects the soil from weed seed germination, helps to maintain a cooler root zone and conserves moisture.

Every fourth or fifth year I lift and divide my primula. Some fresh compost or slow-release fertilizer is dug in to renew nutrients. Dividing and replanting newest plants in the crown rejuvenates growth. Primula are easily divided by lifting, shaking or washing away the soil from the roots, and teasing apart individual plants.

Five Prime Primula

I have five favorite primula that have been with me with me over the years. These easy-to-grow gems should get you off on the right foot with primula that perform well here in the Midwest, no stream or lakeside required.


Primula sieboldii, the Japanese woodland primula, was added to my garden a few years ago and new cultivars have often been added. Japanese woodland primula is a highly variable plant that seems to continually reinvent itself in appearance. Many named forms exist that are sold from divisions and seed strains. Bloom color can be from a pristine snow-white to red, pink or blue along with bi-colors. Shape of the bloom can be flat, cup-shaped or star-shaped, with and without frilled and cut petals. This woodland primula blooms in my garden the later part of April and well into May. When summer temps get too hot and the soil begins to dry, this species goes dormant for the remainder of the year to return next spring.



Primula vulgaris, or the common primrose, is highly adaptable and easily grown. It is available in a wide range of hybrids, color strains and named forms. Look for foliage and bloom coming in under 1 foot. Leaves are on short stalks, of heavy substance, toothed at the edges and oblong in outline. Blooms are generally shallow and open faced, sitting just above the foliage. They slowly form a tight clump of good size and, when grown well, are literally covered with blooms all through March and into April.



Primula veris, the cowslip, will bring early color to your garden primarily in the color yellow, but there are also other named color strains to consider. ‘Sunset Shades’ is an excellent choice for colors such as tangerine, orange, tan and red. Foliage is on stalks about one-third the length of an individual leaf. Leaf margins are coarsely toothed, heavily veined with a quilted appearance and hairy mostly on the underside. The cup-shaped flowers are in trusses at the end of 8-inch stems, with up to 16 drooping flowers, golden-yellow in color. They remind me of little inflated balloons tied off at the top with their colorful contents spilling out.



Primula elatior, the oxlip, has toothed leaves that are rounded at the tip, hairy and reach about 8 inches in length. Stems bearing the clean bright yellow flowers will be up to 12 inches in height and carry up to 12 flowers in a one-sided drooping display, creating a very nice show in April. This is one of the best of species for Midwest gardens for it is among the most tolerant of our hot, dry, summers.


Primula kisoana has performed well for me in the garden for some years now. It always reminds me of African violets with its hairy pink stems and large fleshy leaves which are also covered with down. Blooms are in a pleasing pink, but I have seen that a white form exists. Down-covered leaves come one to a stem and have a succulent appearance, as does the stem. The 6-inch stem is bright rose-pink and almost as colorful as the flowers. Each leaf is about 6 inches across with ruffled edges. Blooms are deep rose-pink in April and into May. This primula travels by underground runners to form colonies between your larger perennials and shrubs. Give it loose mulch over good soil to punch its ticket for travel.


Perhaps when I visit your gardens I will see several new primula in bloom with ferns, as ferns always provide an excellent backdrop for showing off the foliage and flowers of primula. In my garden I also use personal favorites such as Uvularia spp., Trillium spp., Helleborus spp., dwarf Hosta spp. and Corydalis spp.



(From State-by-State Gardening March/April 2012. Photography by Gene E. Bush.)


Posted: 05/14/12   RSS | Print


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