May 3, 2016

Rarely Seen Blooms at the Annual Primrose Show Draws Crowds

Green with envy yet? Meet 'Sword' a rare double exhibition auricula primrose once cherished during Victorian England, some were on display at the New England Primula Society's annual exhibition last weekend.

As soon as one enters the grand hallways at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden for the annual New England Primula Society exhibition, one can see why the Victorians created specialized theaters just for exhibiting these precious spring blooms. This past weekend's annual Primrose Show put on by the New England chapter of the American Primrose Society presented to the viewing public, many rarely seen flowers - ranging from the cold-hardy alpine species which thrive in northern gardens to the precious and rare auricula primroses, which require alpine house conditions where they can develop their white farina rings and spectacularly unrealistic blooms.

A nice double border auricula grown and entered by Pierre Bennerup of Sunny Border Nursery. He had it labeled 'Chelsea Girl'. Auricula's are so desirable, but one must know the different types. If you want success in growing auricula primroses, learn the difference between Border Auricula, Alpine Auricula, Show Auricula such as the Fancies, Stripes, Selfs and Doubles, and then compare them against garden varieties. It's a lot to cover here, but most Primrose nurseries in Europe separate them in their catalogs. Try Pop's Plants, here. It's the best way to learn.

The show not only offered a rare opportunity to see benches of beautifully grown to perfection primroses of most every type imaginable, but plenty of vendor tables from specialist plant nurseries, many of whom offered the same plants for sale, as well as easier-to-grow ones for the garden.  Good garden primroses are hard to find, even at the best garden centers.

A nice blue 'Border Auricula', which just may be the most growable auricula for the home gardener.

A classic yellow-centered Alpine Auricula grown by Marianne Kuchel, displays it's trademark bloom pattern. these too are a bit easier to grow in the garden, but not as easy as the Border Auricula. They are still best if grown in pots, wintered over in a cold, bright room or under cold glass. 

If there is one thing for certain, plant enthusiasts will complain about the weather - especially those who grow and exhibit flowers in the early spring. I can't think of a year when members of our local chapter of the American Primrose Society (the New England Primula Society) didn't not only complain about the weather leading up to their annual show, but I can't think of a year when they were not correct!

Some auricula are more growable for the woodland or well-drained alpine garden, such as this blue Border Auricula.

If you think primroses are not hardy, think about this - we had nearly 8 inches of snow two weeks ago here in New England,  plus a hard frost most every night last week, and many of these plants were dug from exhibitors gardens. All of this following one of the warmest winters ever recorded. By any measurement, by the time the first week of May arrived, all primula should have bloomed and faded - which seems to happen in most years, but clearly, not this one.

Other auricula primroses are more challenging, such as this 'Fancy' Show Auricula. Fancy, indeed. Note the white 'farina' on both the blossom and on the foliage.

Various auricula types filled the benches-  'Shows', 'Selfs' and 'Fancies' competed against doubles and other types - surely confusing most visitors, but delighting them just the same.

'Powder Puff', a double auricula. The double show auricula are becoming my personal favorite, not because they are double, but because of their unique color palette. They often are available in some of the oddest shades like faded silk, mild chocolate, foggy grey or golden mustard.

'Forest Pecan', one of the many 'Forest' doubles so hard to get here in the States. Grown by Judith Sellers. I have a few of these named 'Forest' selections from the UK, but as things go, mine are still in bud.

The 2016 Primrose show held at Tower Hill Botanic Garden was, in my opinion, not only the finest one ever staged in New England, it was perhaps the most diverse and broad, when one considers the species (both early and late ones), as well as the fanciest crosses, especially the hard-to-grow Auricula, a primrose so rarely seen in both collections and gardens in America.

Primula denticulata

Primula denticulata, a Himalayan species which is easy to grow in most cold gardens, makes a good potted display plant, but must be returned to the garden as soon as it finished blooming if one wants it to return in the following year. With this treatment, a plant could live 4 or 5 years before exhausting itself.

A very pretty Polyanthus which I think was named 'Roselyn' had striped flowers. (not sure about this name - please correct me folks!).

'Arlene's Yellow', a Polyanthus type entered by Amy Olmsted, which she named after Arlene Perkins, a well known primula grower.

It felt very springy in the exhibition hall!

This weekend kind-of marks the beginning of the gardening season for us, mainly because Joe and I host an annual dinner party for those who are attending this exhibition, so we spend more time cleaning and un-cluttering the house to get ready for 35+ people, and then there is the cooking. We enjoy it though, and look forward to seeing both old and new friends each year (hint, hint - plant societies - a cocktail party with good food makes for a happier and more engaged society!).

Amy Olmsted from Vermont, entered this P. kisoana in a foliage class. It's pretty clear to see why - it would have been striking in bloom, but even the foliage on this species is lovely.

This farinose primula shows just how tiny some plants in this genus can be.

As you've read on these pages many times before, primula are not always the easiest plants to understand, and to be honest, they are not as 'growable' as catalogs and magazine or blog articles often portray them to be, but yes, one can 'grow' them - but perhaps not most of them. When it comes to raising primroses, selecting the right one for your garden is really what it is all about, and more often than not, the 'right one' is rarely the color or variety one desires. Sorry - the fancy or show auricula's are probably not 'right' for you - sorry to be the one to share that reality.

Many P. elatior hybrids which make terrific garden plants, showed the diversity just within this species. These you may find at a garden center, if so - buy them, and divide them every couple of years, and save their seed, as they will need biannual refreshing if you want a display like this.

Ian Christie from Scotland, was flown out for a couple of talks, as well as a round table where members could discuss cultivation tips and tricks face-to-face with him. He seemed to enjoy our greenhouse but I felt rather inferior compared to this well know plantsman!

This year we had a special guest as usual - the guest speaker for the conference was Ian Christie the noted alpinist from Scotland. Ian seemed to enjoy our greenhouse and garden, but I think he really enjoyed seeing how accomplished many of our local Northeast primula growers are getting (the society here is only 15 years old or so, but the American Primrose Society has been active since the 1930's).

Judith Sellers from New York, and other members were able to tour the garden and greenhouse before it got dark on Friday. Wine always helps people enjoy our party (and not notice all the weeds!).

Another view of the gorgeous Fancy Show auricula.

Truth is, the primrose or primula is more of a British hobby than it is anything else. In the UK, the roots are deep and wide when it comes to primrose culture (in fact, it was the first 'florist' flower - the word 'florist' even comes from the early explorers who collected Primula auricula in the Alps and began hybridizing them in the 1600's.).

Double Auricula's seemed to rule the show. This chocolate colored double is named 'Giradelli' (I wonder why?). Grown and entered by Judith Sellers.

This years' Primrose show however was not a National Show, but our local chapter show, but just look at how the plants have improved over the past ten years as members have begun to perfect their techniques, and become more accomplished. In many ways, these hard-to-grow plants - especially the  show, double and alpine auricula exhibited, were some of the finest ever seen in America - outside of those probably grown where they really seem to grow better - the Pacific coastal states of Oregon and Washington, and especially the Province of British Columbia.

Clockwise, from upper left: Double Auricula 'Forest Lemon', cocoa colored 'Stomboli', which won 4th runner-up for Best in Show and Best Double Auricula, originally bred by Derek Salt in England, and a pretty mustard colored double - all grown by expert grower - Judith Sellers.

This show however seemed magical, in that both early and late spring species and hybrids were shown - rarely will one show have good plants of both Primula elatior and Primula denticulata along with show auricula and Polyanthus all on the same bench. Congratulations to everyone, and thanks to crazy weather, we were gifted a spectacular show which drew record breaking crowds to Tower Hill Botanic Garden, which itself is growing and getting better and better with each year.

In the sales area, visitors could choose from hundreds of varieties and species, ranging from some of the easiest to grow, to some very special auricula types.

I liked watching people write down names of varieties that they liked on the show benches, and then go to the vendor area to see if they could find the same variety there for sale. Many did.

A very odd colored 'self', which is a show auricula with one color.

lastly, I was honored to both win a Division with one of my red polyanthus plants, but also be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Primrose Society. I was so surprised! Thank you!

Primula from Wightman Alpines, which mail order-ships many rare species across North America. A great source for many alpine and border auriculas, as well as some show types, and other alpine plants.

This doesn't look like $450 worth of plants but it is! I sort of went over my limit at the NARGS auction which was also being held in another room at the botanic garden (The New England Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society), but also, the vendors which included Harvey Wrightman from Wrightman Alpines, the premiere alpine plant nursery located in Canada (who ships rare alpines and primula throughout North America). You too can order from Harvey here. I highly recommend it! Tell him Matt sent you. He stayed with us.


  1. Anonymous2:31 PM

    I saw that lovely dark polyanthus at the garden centre over the weekend, it was being sold as 'Dark Rosaleen'

    1. Thanks! I knew someone would find the correct spelling!

  2. alpine, denticulate and the "self" for me plz! gorgeous - thx!

  3. Wow!! Congratulations on the Lifetime Achievement Award! May there be many more!

  4. What beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you Chrisina. I am still getting used to the new camera, but to be honest, it's an SLR so all I have to do is point and click!

  5. Thank you for all the beautiful blooms!


Oh yes, do leave me a comment!