Down the primrose path

Cowslips   Amanda Slater/Flickr

Cowslips   Amanda Slater/Flickr

Calling all Anglophiles  -- the ones doting  on the royals, addicted to “Downton Abbey” and convinced there’s something very proper about high tea.

If this sounds like someone you know, introduce them Britain’s favorite little darling, the charming, rainbow-colored primrose. It’s not that primroses aren’t far-flung, including more than 400 species native to Asia and Western Europe. But the Brits are especially devoted to them as little gems of moist woodlands and shady hedgerows and as ever, the English way with gardens is inspiration for us “colonials” across the pond.

In Celtic myth, the pale yellow blooms of primroses known as cowslips just might admit you to the realm of the wee folk. A bouquet of 13 flowers, struck upon a fairy rock (if you could find one) opens the door to that magical place where fairies live – or so the story goes.

You don’t have to travel far in imagination or fact to have a close encounter with primroses since greenhouse-grown plants will shortly show up in garden centers, home improvement outlets and even supermarkets.

These make lovely if temporary houseplants and combine well in containers with other spring-blooming plants. Remove any foil wrappings that might prevent good drainage, give them ample moisture and put them in a cool, bright spot.

Greenhouse primroses, like many pansies and violas, prefer cool conditions and won’t hold up in our typically hot, humid summers. Hardier types are available, however, and these make delightful choices for moist, shady New Jersey gardens. Many do favor damp places near water or rock gardens where moisture is abundant. If you are being led down the primrose path, chances are you’re going to get your feet muddy.

Primula – the Latin name for this genus – means “first” and is related to the modern Italian word for spring, primavere.

The earliest bulb flowers such as crocus and daffodils may slip into first place in our gardens, but primroses aren’t far behind. They are among the first herbaceous perennials to unfurl their handsome, fuzzy leaves and blossom in an array of primary colors. The primrose season outdoors is generally at its peak in early April through early June, beginning with the those fairy-kissed cowslips.

Candelabra primroses   Rachel Stelmach/Flickr

Candelabra primroses   Rachel Stelmach/Flickr

To sort through the array, it’s useful to think of primroses in three general groups: The true alpine types that like to perch in the stony scree of rock gardens; the hardy garden types that tolerate the broadest range of shady conditions and the hybrid greenhouse species forced into early bloom as houseplants and container specimens.

To see some of the alpine types, plan to visit the Leonard J. Buck Garden off Layton Road in Far Hills, a park in the Somerset County system that is one of the foremost rock gardens in the United States. From early April through early May, the cliffs of this former glacial kettle are painted with primroses in bloom.

The easiest types to grow in more ordinary gardens are probably the taller “candelabra” primroses that hail from Japan and are formally known as Primula japonica. These can spread rapidly from self-sown seeds, making thick colonies that compensate for the relatively small flowers with a mass of bloom.

Primula veris, the cowslip, and Primula vulgaris the “common” primrose of the English countryside are two other subjects that do well in our area. Both bearing nodding, bell-shaped yellow flowers, they are easy to grow and faintly fragrant.

The story of the primrose also has a quixotic America chapter, although the surviving remnants of our homegrown breeding program have since relocated to France. Florence Bellis was an unemployed concert pianist during the Depression when she took up residence in an ancient timber barn in Portland, Oregon with two pianos and 1,500 primrose seedlings. She went on to create the Barnhaven strain, still highly regarded among primrose aficionados.

In the garden, primroses associate well with other shade plants including ferns, hostas, columbines and forget-me-nots which all enjoy the same cool, damp conditions. In containers, pair them with colorful foliage plants like coral bells, euphorbias or small ornamental grasses for a striking combination.

It’s always good to make new friends, so don’t pass by a display of appealing primroses without stopping to make their acquaintance. After all, if the primroses are here, spring has arrived.

Specialty mail order sources

Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, 740 Market Ave., Richmond, CA. Call 888-266-4370 or see anniesannuakls.com.

Edelweiss Perennials, 29800 South Barlow Road, Canby, Oregon 97013. Call 503-263-4680 or go to edelweissperennials.com.

Evermay Nursery, 11 Chapel Road, Orono, ME 04473. Call 207-991-4467 or see evermaynursery.com.