Primroses That Live

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Primula 'Belarina Nectarine'‘Belarina Nectarine’ double primrose


This weekend Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is holding its second open house sale of the season, and one of the featured plants is primroses.  Primroses are a hard sell to gardeners because, as my customers always tell me, they’ve tried primroses and they don’t come back.  I usually begin my defense of the hardiness of primroses by asking if they bought the brightly colored varieties often sold in supermarkets and other big box type stores in early spring.  We have all done it, who can resist?  Unfortunately, those primroses are not suited to our climate and really shouldn’t be marketed as perennials.  There are, however, many lovely primroses that come back every year.  Here are just a few:


Primula verisCowslip primroses are very easily grown in part shade and average soil without supplemental watering.  They produce a 6 to 12″ stem topped by nodding, fragrant, lemon-yellow flowers in midspring.


Ipheion uniflorum, Primula veris, Brunnera macrophylla at Carolyn's Shade GardensCowslip primrose, Primula veris, with spring starflower and perennial forget-me-not.


Primula x polyantha 'Old Brick Reds', Corydalis cheilanthifloia at Carolyn's Shade GardensEnglish primrose ‘Old Brick Reds’, P. x polyantha, is very easy to grow in average soil and part shade, multiplying rapidly.  The scarlet red flowers with a yellow eye can appear as early as the end of March and last into May.  The rosette of wintergreen leaves is bright green. ‘Old Brick Reds’ is a 17th century heirloom primrose given to me by one of my classmates at the Barnes Arboretum.  Paired here with fern-leafed corydalis, C. cheilanthifolia.

Primula kisoanaPrimula kisoana is so rare that it does not appear to have a common name, but that doesn’t mean it is hard to grow.  It spreads by underground runners to form patches of velvety, unusually shaped leaves topped by many bright pink flowers in April and May.  It doesn’t mind dry soil and has creeped out of the amended beds where I planted it to colonize the edges of the rocks along my woodland path.


Primula kisoana 'Alba'Even rarer is the white-flowered form, P. kisoana ‘Alba’.


Primula japonicaJapanese primroses, P. japonica, come in many different shades from pure white to dark magenta held on 20″ stems and set off beautifully by their 10″ long bright green leaves.  The flowers are candelabra form which means that they bloom successively in tiers one over the other for a long period of time in May and June.  They are very easy to grow and self-sow readily as long as you plant them in a moist or wet area.  They will grow in average soil but will die as soon as you have a drought.  I am not sure where I got this photo or I would give proper credit.


Primula sieboldiiOne of the many forms of Japanese woodland primroses, P. sieboldii, that I have collected over the years.

Japanese woodland primroses (not to be confused with the Japanese primroses described above) are a wonderful addition to the garden because they grow in full dry shade but also thrive in average or even moist soil.  They are from Asia and have been cultivated in Japan since the 16th century but are rare in the US.  Reportedly over 500 cultivars have been named, and I see how they can become addictive because I keep adding new forms to my garden.  They bloom in April and May in colors from white to pink to purple and everything in between.  The crinkly green leaves form large patches and effectively block weeds even though they go dormant when it gets hot out.


Primula sieboldiiThe flowers of Japanese woodland primrose often have a different color “reverse” (back), here white with lavender pink.


Primula sieboldiiThey also can have filigreed edges kind of like a doily for a lovely dainty effect.


Primula sieboldii 'Snowflake'The earliest to bloom in my garden is pure white ‘Snowflake’.


Primula sieboldiiThis is the straight species and is one of my favorites.  Local readers should make an effort to see Japanese woodland primrose blooming in my garden because the photos don’t do justice to their beauty.  They are located under the tree below the birdhouse.


Primula 'Belarina Valentine'‘Belarina Valentine’ double primrose

Even though they look delicate, the Belarina Series of double primroses has proven to be reliably perennial in my garden.  They bloom in late April and May, and the leaves are just emerging right now.  I have sited them in an east-facing location between stepping stones under a Japanese maple.  The soil probably does not dry out because of the stones and the heavy mulch of leaves and pine needles.  If you are looking for a colorful primrose like the non-hardy grocery store varieties, these showy double primroses are just what you want.


Primula 'Belarina Pink Ice'‘Belarina Pink Ice’ double primrose


Primula 'Belarina Cobalt Blue'‘Belarina Cobalt Blue’ double primrose


Primula 'Belarina Nectarine'‘Belarina Nectarine’ double primrose


Many of these primroses will be available at the open house sale at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens this Saturday, April 13, from 10 am to 3 pm.  The rest will be for sale as they come up because I grow most of them myself.  Readers who are not local now know which reliably perennial primroses to ask for at their local nursery.



Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, US, zone 6b.  The only plants that we mail order are snowdrops and miniature hostas and only within the US.

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Nursery Happenings:  Our open house sale featuring early spring-blooming shade plants takes place this Saturday, April 13, from 10 am to 3 pm.  If you are a customer, you should have gotten an email with all the details. If you can’t come to an event, just email to schedule an appointment to shop.  Coming up next is our Great Hosta Blowout where we sell desirable hostas at bargain prices—look for an email.

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56 Responses to “Primroses That Live”

  1. You can’t beat a beautiful selection of Primula. Yours look really health. Every garden should have at least a few.

  2. Great post Carolyn. I love Primrose and especially love your doubles. I have not seen them for sale up here. My favorite is ‘Belarina Cobalt Blue’, gorgeous color. Maybe when I am down in May, I will be bringing some home with me????

  3. You have piqued my interest in primroses, Carolyn! These are gorgeous. Were I closer I would certainly visit your open house.

  4. Hi Carolyn… I’m glad i checked my in box and found your primula post.. I planted several of these doubles last spring and am pleased that they came through the winter very well. Your post was a nice way to get my mind off what’s going on outside… I did a post this morning about our ice… it was for the most part pretty then, but it’s now devestation and the freezing rain is predicted to continue another 12 hours. One thing is likely… I’ll have room for those new magnolias I’ve ordered… the part that upsets me the most is the birch walk… at this point they are all bent to the ground and the wind is becoming a problem… I could well lose them all but will have to wait and see what happens. My pines are damaged the most with the large norway spruces not far behind if the ice continues. Most of the Amelanchier canadensis is broken off at ground level. The various fastigiate pines and oaks are all in tough shape as well, although not necesarily entirely broken yet. … and to think… I thought this was going to be a great spring… we have temps predicted in the lower 40’s for the next ten days and no sun.

    • Larry, I am so sorry. I have been through a winter (not a spring) like that and you feel so helpless sitting inside hearing the cracking. Here it was almost 90 degrees yesterday and in the mid 80s the two days before, and I was sad watching the magnolias come into bloom and start to shrivel. I will visit your site shortly. Carolyn

  5. I have wondered if they will survive our summer heat and, usually drought, here in Upstate SC? We can often top 100 degrees in July and August with no rain in sight and though I water, still some things will not make it. I love Primroses but worry I would be issuing them a death sentence. And, my shade is often sandy soil or the ‘Georgia red clay’.

    • HRF, It is very hot in the summer here in suburban Philadelphia though a little less than Georgia. In a recent July I think it was over 90 most days and 95 for 20 days. We reach 100 degrees many times but the primroses don’t seem to care. The Japanese woodland primroses are dormant then so they don’t care—maybe you should start with them. Carolyn

  6. Hi Carolyn, a nice collection of Primrose. It’s hard not to grab just the Sieboldii when you see them in bloom — is their a bad version of the Sieboldii? But you didn’t mention my favorite which is just the common Primula vulgaris which runs wild in English pastures. I find that it flowers so early and so densely that it almost looks like it’s prepping for the flower shows.

  7. Your primroses are absolutely gorgeous. Thank you for the many wonderful photos that are quite inspiring. I have cowslip primroses growing and this year I am trying to propagate them from seed. The results are yet to be seen.

  8. Love primroses! I have grown P. vulgaris and P. veris from seed to remind me of English woodland walks of my childhood. Over here I have found both the Primabella and Belarina series are reliably perennial as is the little ‘Wanda’

  9. Every time you send out a blog with such gorgeous photos I think I must have some of those! I am so hooked! C

    Charlotte Lindley Martin

  10. Primulas are one of my favourite families of plants, there seem to be so many different sorts, something for every situation. Fortunately I have found lots of varieties that like my heavy clay and the bog garden particularly is full of candelabra primulas and others that like to paddle in the water! You have a lovely selection in your garden, I haven’t seen P. kisoana alba before, must look it up and see if it would like conditions in my woodland !!

  11. I have never tried to grow primroses, because of their reputation of being an annual. But, these are so pretty!!! I am a bit surprised, but delighted, to read in the comments that you think they could handle our heat, too! Now just to find the right spot for them! 😉 Good luck with your sale on Saturday.

  12. How beautiful the primroses are!! I had no idea that there are soooo many varieties. I bought for my mother-in-law a purple one and has never stopped blooming. So hardy and delicate looking.

  13. I adore primrose but I can’t be tempted any longer. I have a pond, I have bog and one would think I could grow them! They last a few years and then they just disappear. Friends who have colonies of them are much envied by me!

  14. So many pretty primroses! It is hard to find plants like the Japanese woodland primrose here. I love the simple white ‘Snowflake’.

  15. Carolyn,
    You’ve done gardeners a great service by creating this collection of reliable primrose plants. This post does everything a good garden blog should do – it’s informative, helpful, and inspirational. The only information missing, for the benefit of readers gardening in colder climates, is mention of USDA growing zones for each plant.

    • Allan, I write my posts based on my own experience of the plants in question in the mid-Atlantic area of the US. I don’t want to advise gardeners in other zones and climates about growing specific plants and leave it to them to research whether the plant will work in their area. Carolyn

  16. I’ve been wanting to learn more about primroses and this post is very informative,,thanks Carolyn!

  17. I love those primroses as there are so many and a few I have. I even have the big box store ones that do grow here…but I love that first one at the top of the post.

  18. debsgarden Says:

    I planted several of the species primroses in my garden, not expecting anything of them and I still will be surprised if they survive the summer to return next year. But I am hooked! They have grown and bloomed beautifully, maybe because of the wet, cold weather that persisted for months, but certainly worth it!

  19. aberdeen gardening Says:

    Carolyn, I am not surprised that the the Primrose is amongst your favourite group of plants, considering the ones which you show us today. The Cowslip looks terrific along with the Brunnera.

  20. I’ve always thought of primroses as being quintessentially British, about a month ago they were all we had. I’ve never heard of the Japanese, double or rare varieties … and if they live forever, even better.

  21. some beautiful primroses Carolyn, I love our british native primroses and thankfully they like my garden and self-seed, I have heard of P.sieboldii but until reading your post knew nothing about, I hadn’t thought of looking for it ………. until now! if they grow in dry shade they might grow under my pines, the british bluebell and primula vulgaris like it there, thanks, Frances

  22. Ooh! That Cobalt Blue is just lovely. So many, some look like Begonias.

  23. What a great selection of primroses you have and how I wish you mail ordered! I ordered seed of the japonica and I wonder if it is too late to sow them this year as I think they need cold treatment in order to germinate. Any thoughts?

    I have Sieboldii but would be buying more from you if I lived nearby (along with many others!). I had not heard of kisoana so thanks for enlightening me. Love it in the white form.

  24. Oh-oh. I am guilty of that grocery store primrose thing. What a shock to read about all these variations. Like Bridget I love the cobalt blue. Thanks for the education Carolyn.

  25. Love the “Belarina Nectarine’. So many different varieties to choose from. Do they survive in zone 5?

  26. Once again I wish we were closer. Love those Belarina primroses, I don’t think I could pick a favorite. I am not sure if it is too warm here in SC for primroses.

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