May 13, 2017

Primula, Parties and Prizes - The 2017 National Primrose Show Delights Many

We hosted two nights of cocktail parties and dinners for the American Primrose Society as they held their national primrose show last weekend at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

This past weekend Joe and I hosted our annual cocktail party for the American Primrose Society who held their National Primrose Show in association with the New England Primula Society near us at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. Since 2001 this has become an annual event, well, party for us. I'm beginning to think that The New England Primrose Society is really just a name for many of our best friends - a group of plant people, be they experts, beginners, or just people who are curious about interesting plants. Many really don't even enter primroses in the show, but they come for the social aspect.

Every May around the 5th we usually host a welcoming party and garden tour (if you can call it that!) at the house. Not that we have a very interesting garden at all, and to be honest, I'm kind of embarrassed to have folks strolling through our messy garden, but the greenhouse usually still has some interesting plants in it, and there are a few choice plants here and there about the garden. The truth is that most of the people visiting have serious gardens, the sort that are on real garden tours, part of conservancies and even botanic gardens, but everyone is polite and cheery ( we prime them with lots of wine and food - and really, since I like to cook, the food is probably a good leveler that gets everyone chatting and comfortable. 

Susan Schnare's self sown Juliana hybrid  won Best in Show, and it happens to be a very growable species for New England Gardeners as well. It's un-named but because it won, she will be able to name it.

This year was extra special as the special guests flown out to speak were Jodie Mitchell and Lynn Lawson, proprietors of an infamous primrose nursery - Barnhaven Primroses, now located in France. If you have even wanted to get seed or plants of some of the finest primroses available, with a provenance - than Barnhaven is your source - yes, they ship to the US. I have to say this here - if you've ever had problems growing primroses, my seed-raised Primula polyanthus from Barnhaven are the most hardy and sturdy of my garden primroses. You can check out their site, here, or order their new book From Timber Press (see below).

We were so fortunate to have as our special guests, the proprietors of Barnhaven Primroses Jodie Mitchell and Lynne Lawson who flew out from France to speak about their new book and about their famous primrose nursery.

The Barnhaven name is so well known amongst primrose enthusiasts that it seems silly to mention it here except that others who are not primrose growers need to know some of these base-line secrets if they ever expect to achieve any success in raising these sometimes fussy (yet exceptionally hardy)plants.  Barnhaven is a name that originated in Oregon in a small but eventually very well known nursery that specialized in primroses ion the 1930'a - it's a long (and fascinating story) that you can read about here.

This new book on Primulas part of the Plant Lover's Guide series is available from Timber Press, it was written by Jodie Mitchell and Lynn Lawson of Barnhaven Primroses.

Have you struggled with primroses in your garden? Well, here's a tip - if you've lost interest with primroses - I ask you to give them a second chance, but promise me this -  forgot about silly names of strains long lost such as "Pacific Giants' or a nursery-purchased plant that you've seem to buy every year but then gave up growing.  Primroses may be a bit fussy, I agree, but not all of them are. I have to say that my longest lived primroses mostly came from other members divisions or seedings that I obtained but becoming a member of the primrose society.

I  learned very quickly after joining the American Primrose Society that they are in fact very easy plants to grow, but for some reason, they are never offered for sale at nurseries or garden centers. Probably because they dislike pots, wintering over in hoop houses or aren't in bloom when they need to be sold. A forced primrose is rarely a happy one that will want to return.

Primula is a big family, and there are all sorts to learn about, so you should first get a good book that simplifies the dozen or so broad typed (alpines, auriculas, garden types, those which like wet feet, etc). You can learn it. Believe be, I did.

Then, find out what species or strains would do well in your garden conditions. I imagine that there is a primrose just right for you. This is far too much work for a nursery to undertake, since they order plants from distributors and most plants need to have a broad application - the need to survive not being watered by staff, they need to be regionally hardy for a wide range of conditions, and no primula can do that.

Primroses which were once so popular seem to be finding a new audience with curious and more informed gardeners - I think that the future of primroses is bright, with more and more species and hybrids becoming available from a few on-line nurseries - seek them out, and try some of the fine spring garden plants which we rarely see at garden centers.

Member of the New England Primula Society enjoy cocktails and food in our new (and still unfinished kitchen, under construction).

If you visited a primrose society member, all they would need to so is to step out into their garden and dig up a division of one that they know would do well for you. That's it. Your only other option is to learn about primroses, what the most common varieties and species require, and then raise the right species or strain yourself.

My tip for rooms under construction? Pic big flowering branches to distract un-finished walls and use old desks as temporary counter tops.

This 'Chehalis Blue ' , a well-known old variety of Border Auricula was a popular winner on the show bench. It was raised by Dean Wiegert of Fredonia,Wisconson. Yes, he packed this up and brought it on a plane in a carry on!.

Don't depend on your nursery or garden center to do this. Most garden center primroses were raised in a distant location, probably wintered over in a hoop house with protection, and never saw a garden until you set them out.

Raise some seed from Jelitto or Barnhaven however in a flat, and then transplanted out late in summer, and next year you may have that primrose path you've dreamed about. And, it will return year after year. There really isn't another way when it comes to garden primroses like P. Veris, the Polyanthus types and other garden primula like P. denticulata. If you want the harder to grow auricula, then I have to be honest - they are much more difficult. Get a book and do your homework. Begin with the easier auricula like the border auricula or the alpine auricula, for they are a bit more forgiving (in a well, drained alpine bed, or an improvised alpine house). If you want show auricula or doubles, they are even more challenging, but very rewarding once you master them. Success is increased if you join a primrose society. You need help with these, and there are many who can provide secrets to their success.

Overall - success has more to do with what species or strains one obtains, and where one plants them than anything else. You can master their culture. If I can, you can. Don't give up on primroses, learn about the different species and garden types by reading - it can get confusing, but this new book from Timber Press will help, and then try the right ones that will survive in your garden.

And never- ever -  confuse Evening Primrose (oenothera) with the TRUE primroses (those organized within the genus primula)! Not the same thing.

Auricula's are always everyone favorite, and although few can raise them well, there are a few who have mastered their culture in the US.  This year wasn't the best of years for Auricula entries, but there were some nice ones like this Gold Centered Alpine Red seedling bred by Judith Sellers of New Berlin, NY. Most of the auricula's entered here were grown by Judith Sellers a talented alpine grower who keeps hundreds in her cellar windows in cold, unheated rooms which she designed in her 'round house' - such  unheated greenhouse 'rooms; work well for these traditional alpine house plants. 

A view of the prize table.

Primula kisoana, a nice garden primrose that can run (in a good way) was a surprise entry since we rarely see this species in bloom for this show. Grown and entered by Amy Olmsted of Vermont. It won first place in it's category.
An early blooming species, Primula denticulata was practically a no-show at this exhibit. A few did make the show bench though like this white P. denticulata entered by Debbie Wheeler for Massachusetts. It won Best Species and 3rd runner up for Best in Show.

Some garden forms like the species, a white Primula kisoana from Japan and China was a show stopper, this one because it had a green eye.

'Chocolate', a deep brown double auricula from England grown and raised by Judith Sellers.

If you haven't guess by now, double auriculas have the most incredible color palette. This citron colored one is named 'Forest Lemon', and exhibited with 5 plants together in one container. It won a big award - second runner up to best in show, raised by Judith Sellers of New York.

'Powder Puff', a double auricle grown by Judith Sellers.

This double auricula 'Ghiradelli 'is appropriately named for the chocolate manufacturer due to its brown color. Entered and grown by Judith Sellers. 
This blue border auricula won second place in border auriculas entered by Judith Sellers.

'Sapphire Blue' a double polyanthus won first place in it's category and a special novice award for a first time entry earning it's grower and exhibitor Dean Wiegert of Fredonia, Wisconsin a nice medal.

This Gold Laced Group primrose was grown and entered by Rodney Barker, Co-President of the New England Primrose Society. It is a very challenging plant to grow well.

Primula veris 'Sunset Shades' is a very easy primrose to grow, and a great beginners choice either from seed or established plants.

The Massachusetts Daffodil Society held their Daffodil Show again at Tower Hill Botanic Garden at the same time as our Primrose Show - always a popular pairing with the public (I mean, the line to get in was long, and the traffic was backed up for a quarter mile - and I don't think that it was because of primroses!). 

I was inspired by how the Daffodil Society exhibited their group classes, so I shoved a few of my daffodils into floral foam in my window display over the sink (really, it was because I ran out of time as guests were arriving for the Saturday night banquet which we also hosted this year.
Here is a view of the room where the Daffodil Society exhibited their classes. It was very popular with attendees at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

On Saturday night, we hosted the Primrose Society again for a second night. this time a sit-down banquet since they could not get a restaurant together that could handle all of their needs (handicap access, food allergies, etc). I offered to cook a pasta bar with lots of selections and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves perhaps more, since with a few tables set (a bit more fancy this time) folks could talk and meet each other. People flew in from many states, and a home cooked meal allowed people to chat and enjoy the awards ceremony better.

Author Kris Fenderson (and horticulturist) ran the auction which included many rare and antique items that featured primroses on them.

I picked lots of white primroses from the garden and threw in lots of candles, ironed napkins and wine glasses to make the place feel a little more -restauranty.

Poor Joe. We could really use three dishwashers!
A nice gift from a member of the society was this pot of a rare Japanese primrose - Primula sieboldii, in a particularly strong selection. 


  1. New Berlin is not that far from me. I wonder if I could visit Judith Sellers and her primroses?

  2. That's right, it isn't. When I visited you, that's where I stayed the night before. I'm sure she would enjoy your visit - she lives in a beautiful 'round house' on a hilltop overlooking a river with a great vista.

  3. Anonymous10:56 AM

    dear matt
    a flowering branch of fothergilla does dress things up with style! your party looks very festive (said wistfully).
    thank you for the last couple of posts--very happy to glean your many tips for good growing. having heated debate with Himself about the wisdom of using uncured bamboo structurally for pole brans, etc. any thoughts?
    all best,
    ~ 02568

  4. beautiful photos Matt. Nice blog post. Thank you for being such a great host. I was very jealous when Paul brought the sieboldii in, gorgeous. and thank you for spelling my name correctly, I feel famous.


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