Not so prim at all
Country Life UK|February 17, 2021
Primroses naturally produce tantalising variations that have been avidly collected since Elizabethan times. Val Bourne looks at how modern breeding has increased the arresting forms and sumptuous colours of this much-loved spring woodlander
Val Bourne
EARLY in the year, cumbersome, buff-tailed bumblebee queens can be seen hunting for nectar on our native primrose, Primula vulgaris, the open-faced flowers of which sustain newly emerged bumblebees and solitary bees that might otherwise perish. The adaptable little primrose happily colonises damp ground unsuitable for miniature spring-flowering bulbs, which makes it useful for gardeners, too.

The primrose has a secret weapon when it comes to pollination: heterostylous flowers, which means the flowers have two kinds of style. Some are thrum-eyed, with a prominent ring of pollen-bearing anthers positioned above the style; others are pin-eyed, with a protruding pistil above the anthers. This two-way arrangement ensures pollen adheres to the furry bodies of visiting pollinators within seconds, ensuring plenty of viable seeds. Charles Darwin(1809–82), who spent 30 years breeding and hybridising primroses in order to understand more about genetics, pointed out these dimorphic differences to The Linnean Society on November 21, 1862.

Long before Darwin presented his paper, nectar-gathering bees had been busy producing a great variety of differences in wild populations. John Gerard listed several in his Herball of 1597, including a green double, and Elizabethan gardeners held such curiosities in high regard. There were hose-in-hose flowers (with one flower set inside another), which were named after the habit of Elizabethan noblemen of wearing two pairs of hose to keep warm in winter, and Jack in the Greens, when flowers sat in a ruff of foliage not unlike an Elizabethan lace collar.

Galligaskin primroses had petal-like foliage displaying colour and doubles were much sought after. Some believe that the easily grown ‘Lilacina Plena’ (syn. ‘Double Lilac’ and ‘Quaker’s Bonnet’) may be centuries old.

By the 17th century, the term polyanthus was being used for showy hybrids between cowslips and primroses. These displayed a cluster of larger flowers on a single stem and red forms soon appeared. There is a specimen in Jacob Bobart the Younger’s Herbarium of 1658, suggesting that a red polyantha grew in the Botanic Garden in Oxford. By 1780, there were gold-laced primulas being exhibited as florists’ flowers; in recent years, plant breeders have re-created these and they flood garden centres every spring. They’re well worth scanning, because seed-raised plants vary from ruby-red to almost-black. One particularly fine example is a micro-propagated double-red and gold form called ‘Elizabeth Kille-lay’, which was found by an English gardener called Hazel Bolton, who named it after her granddaughter.

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