IN THE GARDEN: Tips for growing primulas in Alaska

Thursday, June 7, 2018 - 12:38
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Every spring, the first flowers to emerge in my garden are the primulas. Primulaceae is the name taken from the Italian word for spring, (primavera).

Frequently found in the Himalayas and western China and in the northern countrysides of Europe, this plant prefers the cool, damp conditions of the alpine mountain regions and is well-suited for us in Alaska.

There are over 450 varieties of primulas, and they come in all shapes, colors and sizes. They bloom in May and June and are very easy to grow. This is a perennial, and it can be counted on to multiply and return year after year. Primulas like our slightly acidic soil and moist, cool weather. Easily divided and grown from seed, primulas can be fun to grow and are encouraging for new gardeners in Alaska. As you might have noticed, not everything will grow here. You can count on these pretty and strong plants to welcome you every spring without fail.

Primulas spread and need to be divided about every couple of years. They are easy to divide, and you can grow more to share with your friends or sell at a plant sale. Also, primulas can be grown by saving the seed and planting them outside in a flat or pot filled with soil in late summer, and then during winter they will go through what is called cold stratification. This process is a requirement for many plants, including primulas, to grow. By planting outdoors, you are mimicking the exact conditions they require naturally. In the spring, these seeds will sprout. Simply lift out your pots and plant them where you wish or give some of them away to friends. They will love them.

Primulas prefer moist humus rich soil that drains well. I have mine in full sun or partial shade and they do very well.

They grow best in Zone 3-8 and grow 5-7 inches high and 5-8 inches wide. You may notice a farina or farinose white or yellow powdery exudate covering the plant. This is a protein substance produced by the plant and is normal. If this bothers you, it is easily washed off when watering your plant. One great thing about primulas is moose don’t care for them, which is definitely a plus.

Here are just a few of the primulas that are organized in groups called sections that you will find at nurseries and plant sales around town:

Primula auricula is a white-to-magenta colored flower with a bright yellow center.

Other varieties are p.pubescens, p. marginata and p. allionii.

Primula denticulata is a beautiful round ball of flowers that emerge from a strong, tall stalk. This variety needs a little room, as its leaves and stems grow larger throughout the summer. This variety is often called the drumstick.

Primula veris, or cowslip, is the most common of the wild primulas. These plants come in yellow, red and pink.

Primula florindae, primula skikkemensis, primula alpicola and primula waltonii were originally found in moist Himalayan meadows. These varieties have a sweet scent that can be detected while walking through the garden. Primulas can be what are called, “promiscuous,” and you can get new hybrids and colors as a result of hybridization, keeping it interesting year after year.

Primula florindae is also called the Tibetan primrose and is the largest, reaching a height of 30-36 inches and a width of 18 inches. They are usually yellow but can be found in reddish-orange tones. This is one of my favorites.

I am always looking for more primulas to purchase at plant sales, because they are so reliable and attractive. I hope you will look for them when you are out and about this spring and summer and add them to your perennial garden for that touch of brilliant early beauty. Happy gardening.

You can write to me at [email protected] with your questions about gardening. Also send me your gardening events and I will list them. See you around town.

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