My neighbors must have thought me completely insane this weekend, seeing me out in a parka and heavy gloves, cutting down grasses and perennial stalks at my place which is still half under the snow (one consolation: dragging a heavy tarp laden with soggy plant debris is much easier over snow than over lawn!) I just couldn't resist a sunny day; even though the temps were barely above freezing and the wind was raw, it was good to be moving again and at least making a beginning at spring cleanup.
In spite of the mad labor involved, I love spring cleanup most of all for the surprises it holds of emerging and forgotten favorites... the day's efforts revealed budding Hellebores and unfolding species Tulip foliage, plus the still-pointed shoots of Fritillarias, Trilliums, Alliums, Crocus, Phlox and Peonies. And remarkably, the apparently cold-proof leaves of Forget-Me-Nots that have remained fresh and green under the snow cover.
Most perennials haven't yet revealed themselves, but one that has, and a true herald of spring, is the Cowslip Primrose, Primula veris. The leaves push up through still frosty ground, green as a bean and slightly velvety, crinkled and pleated and ready to unfurl in the first really warm week of the year.
As a beginning gardener I was a bit intimidated by Primulas, and many of them are indeed collector's plants for the knowledgeable enthusiast, but there are three species that I can recommend as easy, reliable and lovely. Cowslips were the first I tried and succeeded with, and are still my favorites. All they require is average soil that never completely bakes in the summer, and protection from the hottest afternoon sun. Full sun in early spring is ideal, though, so siting them under deciduous trees is a good plan as long as the soil is reasonably moist.
The default color is a fresh shade of lemon yellow, but they also sport into bronzy orange and even rich red. I'm sure there must be a white version somewhere (probably England) but I've never seen it for sale here. I like to separate the colors and make big patches that carpet the ground beneath my River Birches (the yellow) or complement the blue flowers of Woodland Phlox (the bronze).
I find the red one a bit more difficult to place, but it's certainly vibrant and eye-catching. Being pasture weeds in their native Europe, they're easy as pie and can be divided any time from just after bloom until around Labor Day.
Another little beauty, just as easy to grow, is Primula sieboldii, a native of Siberia, Korea and Japan that comes in shades of white, pink and magenta, many often exhibiting dual coloration with the backs of the petals different from the fronts. The flowers look a bit like snowflakes with varying degrees of fringing and dissection, making for a very charming lacy effect that belies their ease of cultivation.
The plants are stoloniferous and will make large patches in time (as seen above at Berkshire Botanical Garden)... all they ask is consistently moist soil and shade in the summer months. The foliage may even disappear below ground after June, but will return the next spring, when you've forgotten all about it. They make great companions for other diminutive spring treasures like Epimediums, Trilliums, Asarums, Anemonellas and Dodecatheons.
The third easy Primrose is another Asian native that will make itself right at home here if you have a very moist (even boggy) site, ideally along a small stream or at the edge of a shady pool. This is the Japanese or Candleabra Primrose, Primula japonica. The basal rosettes of bright, lettuce-green leaves are topped by tiered clusters of dainty flowers in every shade from white though all tints of pink to dark rose, and some even come in an unusual deep coral tone. In rich soil the flowering stems can reach eighteen inches in height, with several tiers of bloom that open in succession, making for a spectacular display when planted in quantity.
Where happy they will seed themselves freely, so it's hard to maintain separate colors without thinning them as they bloom, but if you have a particularly nice shade you can always divide it after flowering, keep the divisions watered for a couple of weeks, and you'll increase your stock three- or more-fold every year.
Rich, consistently moist soil is key to growing these beauties, but if you have those conditions they will thrive with very little care.
There are, of course, dozens of other Primroses that you can try, many of them quite choice and rare, if you become enamored of the genus Primula. But for general purpose gardening, I heartily recommend these three beautiful, easy and rewarding Primroses. Give them a try, and reap the rewards of early spring bloom for many years to come!
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.