Primula polyanthus

The multi-flowered primrose, a cross between a primrose and a cowslip, is a very old cottage plant, though coloured forms are not named in garden literature until the middle of the seventeenth century. By the end of the next century, breeding new forms had become a craze with specialist gardeners, or ‘florists’, and there were many hundreds of named varieties.

Today it is difficult, though not impossi-ble, to find the older, cottage forms of polyanthus, which have been ousted by the modern Pacific hybrids, a giant strain with larger, longer-lasting flowers in a wider range of colours, including a hectic blue, and taller, stronger stalks. The only loss is of charm.

Polyanthus flower in mid-spring, and are natural companions for scillas, grape hyacinths, early tulips and other spring bulbs. They can be grown as biennials from seed, or as perennials, when they must be divided at least every other year and replanted with leafmould. They need rich, moist soil and some shade, for they wilt in full sun, and look attractive planted three or four ranks deep as an edging to a flower-bed or beside a shady path. On a larger scale, they can be grown under small trees, as Miss Jekyll grew them in her garden at Munstead Wood, where they made a Persian carpet in a grove of cob-nuts. Even with the best care in the world, polyanthus may tire of their situation after several years and sicken, and no replenishment of soil will coax them back to health. This phenomenon is known as ‘primula sickness’, and a new colony must be started in another place. Plant them 12 inches (30 cm) apart.

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