Double Your Primrose Pleasure

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Long Blooming Hose-in-Hose Primulas

This week, colorful, fragrant primroses are everywhere, from gardens and nurseries to grocery stores and big box stores. Few people realize that those clear colors and soft scents are largely due to the work of an Oregon gardener, Florence Bellis. Back in the 1930’s, her homemade nursery in Gresham held all the species she could get her hands on. She soon noticed, as many growers had before, that many once-lovely lines of primroses were losing vigor, clarity of color, size, and scent. Many antique forms were unstable from seed, and vegetative propagation resulted in increasingly weak plants.

Bellis set out to improve the situation and she certainly did. One of her first discoveries was that using her fingertips to transfer pollen from plant to plant resulted in terrific increases in viable seed. Her focus was soon concentrated on the most popular Polyanthus and Acaulis groups, which always sold well. As her color palette expanded, her Barnhaven primroses became sought after all over the Northwest. From murky blues, cloudy whites and yellows, and rusty reds, she crossed and recrossed to purify the colors and develop a wider spectrum of tints and tones. By consistent roguing and crossing, Bellis eventually created seed lines that ran fairly true, which was a huge breakthrough.

European Finishing School

When Bellis retired and sold up her stock, some of her plants and seed lines went to England and Europe. In Prague, a research geneticist, Otka Plavcova, spent over forty years refining the Barnhaven hose-in-hose primroses, an unusual double form that became wildly popular in Elizabethan times. The name ‘hose-in-hose’ refers to the stylish long stockings worn by Elizabethan courtiers under their pouffy knickers. It was trendy to wear two pairs, the outermost folded down to reveal the inner ones, and these primroses reflect that by stacking their blossoms in pairs. The form was first described in Gerard’s Herbal in 1597, making hose-in-hose primroses among the oldest documented garden flowers.

Today, these rescued treasures are available as You and Me primroses (Primula x tommasinii). The large, fragrant blooms are pink or white, rose or cream, blue or purple, yellow or coral, and two laced forms have red or burgundy petals with silvery edges. These free flowering primulas bloom from late winter into June and are solidly perennial, retaining their foliage rosettes all year round. They do best in partial or filtered shade and if divided every few years, the plants will happily carpet a woodland or shade garden.

Pleasing Primroses

To keep these or most primroses happy, give them a well drained spot in half sun or light shade, with a deep mulch (3-4 inches) of light, leaf-based compost. By fall, your plants will probably be big enough to divide. Indeed, most primroses like this kind of treatment and will flourish in such a setting. Most primroses need to be divided every 3-5 years or they tend to dwindle instead of multiply. Luckily, the process is extremely simple. You can divide primroses in spring after they finish blooming, or in fall. I prefer fall division, because the new plants don’t need any care during the rainy season.

To divide a big clump, lift the whole thing out of the ground and shake away the soil. Break each clump into smaller pieces, each with a bit of crown and some roots. I use my hands for this, but some folks like to cut plants with clippers. Toss the old, woody centers on the compost heap and reset the newbies in fresh soil. Give them a nice blanket of mulch in fall and refresh it in spring and you will have lots of happy plants to share.

Sex And The Double Primula

If you are really fascinated, you might want to slog your way through this admittedly dense but fascinating scientific abstract discussing hose-i-hose primulas as a sex-linked mutant form of Primula vulgaris from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010:

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