Yellow Primroses at West Dean Gardens

Prima Rosa - The First Flower

I have always had a soft spot for primulas even to the extent of making them the subject of my taxonomy paper as a student on the Kew Diploma. Surprisingly that only increased my enthusiasm! They come in all shapes and sizes from the giants of the Himalayas to our own diminutive Primula scotica, native to coastal dunes and turf in Northern Scotland. However it is not the impressive but demanding exotic species that really capture my imagination but the humble and easy native primrose, Primula vulgaris and its closely related but oh so somehow different cousin, the cowslip, Primula elatior.

I think there is nothing lovelier than stumbling on a shady hedgerow bank vibrant with the subtle, sherbet drop yellow of a large colony of primroses that have seeded themselves in such profusion that they literally carpet the ground to the virtual exclusion of anything else. One of the earliest natives into flower there seeming delicacy is belied by their capacity to withstand all the buffeting that the late winter or emergent spring can supply. Often they are a starter course in a visual repast that fills out with bluebells and is completed with a ferny follow up. We have sought to recreate this spectacle in our wild flower meadows at West Dean so that now, as the snowdrops and crocuses begin to fade and before the daffodils dominate the scene, the humble primrose occupies centre stage for a brief few weeks. However for this to work on our scale you do need numbers, this is definitely a case where more is more so over the years we have collected seed from local populations, grown them on as plugs and then carpet bombed areas to create the desired effect. And as is often the case with the more robust members of the plant world they continue to propagate themselves with great vigour so that your original planting rapidly increases in number and beauty. In the wild they are generally found in shady spots but we have found that they seem to tolerate a reasonable degree of exposure as long as they are not subject to extended periods of drought.

In contrast the cowslip is a denizen of close cropped turf on open chalkland and limestone soils and is therefore more tolerant of exposure to sun and drought conditions. Having said that we have areas , notably the orchard in the walled garden, where they thrive alongside each other so never say never. With their rich yellow flowers, stained with orange markings inside their incurved petals, and clustered in one sided umbels on 100mm stalks they are less shy and retiring than the ground hugging primrose. So much so that when you stumble across a piece of meadow land that is enlivened by thousands of flower heads it can take your breath away. Happily we have now achieved that effect in some areas, come and see in a few weeks time.

However despite their innocent demeanor both of these beauties are highly promiscuous and will cross with coloured polyanthus in nearby garden beds so if you want to retain a consistent colour scheme you do need to rogue out any reds or oranges that appear!

Jim Buckland
Gardens Manager