Primitive primulas that originate from the Alps in Europe have a very special place in my heart. They take me back to the latter years of my boyhood when I began to take an interest in mountains and read the works of authors such as Frank Barker, Clarence Elliott, Royton Heath, and Reginald Farrer. They are, in a sense, “back to basics” plants because, despite all the excitement of novelties from across the globe, they continue to exist, with their simple but beautiful gifts to offer.
(On the left is the P. allionii Mary Berry main plant, with P. a. austen and the white P. a. avalanche behind it.)
Although it is fairly uncommon in the wild, Primula allionii, the European alpine primula par excellence, is rather widespread in cultivation in the United Kingdom. Every few decades, it has a surge in popularity that lasts for a few years. It is quite diverse in terms of the size and shape of the petals as well as the color, which may range from white to light pinks all the way to carmine. Additionally, there is a large number of identified variants of it. I planted a few seed capsules that I discovered when cleaning up a plant, and from that one, planting sprang a diverse collection of offspring. I was taken aback by the fact that most of them were really gorgeous and deserving of being grown, despite the fact that none of them would be worthy of being named. Primula allionii is often cultivated in Alpine Houses because it requires shelter from the weather and since it does not begin flowering until around the month of December. It grows well in situations that are rather dry and benefit from compost that is rich in lime.
One of my own seedlings is on the right, while P. allionii 81/19/3 is on the left. That may be one of Ken Wooster’s numbers (Ken spent years breeding and choosing forms of P.allionii), or it could be one of the numbers of some other collector (perhaps one of Jim Archibald’s collections). Ken Wooster spent years breeding and selecting varieties of P.allionii.
Another species that is varied and localized is Primula marginata, which may be seen on the left as “Pritchard’s variant.” Similar to P. allionii. In addition to having exquisite blooms (which are often a mauve color with a white eye), this plant exudes a calming aroma, and its leaves are coated with a powdery substance that resembles farina (a flour-like powder that rubs off). It is simpler to cultivate outdoors, but the results are less attractive since the rain washes away the farina.
Primulas readily cross-pollinate with one another, and there has been a recent uptick in interest in hybridizing the many European varieties. This one (on the right) is called Lismore Jewel, and it is a hybrid between an allioniiI and a pubescens. It is somewhat like to allionii in many respects, with the exception that the blooms feature a yellow eye rather than a white one.
I’m not sure where the Primula “Wharfdale Village” (left) came from, but it’s a gorgeous plant that doesn’t need much attention. It has heads of fragrant blooms that are creamy white with yellow eyes and they sit atop ferny leaves.
The Primula forrestii (shown on the right) is a peculiar plant. It is an Asian species, but in contrast to the vast majority of Asian plants now cultivated, it does best when it is treated more like a European species. This means that it may be kept drier and that it requires more sunlight. This one came from a seed, and besides having a great reputation for longevity, I nurtured it myself (apparently it easily makes 100 years).