Primroses and Springtime

Spring would just not be spring without Primroses in the garden.  These low growing hardy perennial plants with their pale yellow flowers grow freely at the base of hedgerows along English country lanes and on the edge of woodland.

Primroses not only grace the British countryside but also have a much wider distribution across western and southern Europe.  They have a range which spans from the Faroe Islands and Norway in the north to Portugal and North Africa in the south and eastwards to Turkey and Iran (ref:  Wikipedia).

Although Primroses (Primula vulgaris) do come in other colours it is the pure, delicate pale yellow that we prefer.  These are distributed in natural, informal plantings amongst the fallen leaves at the base of the trees and hedgerows here at Waverley.  They seem to grow best in part shade and in areas of the garden that remain reasonably moist.


There are a number of plants in the garden that remind us of particular people, places or times and our Primroses are no exception.  Many of our Primroses originated from the charming country garden of the late June Runnalls at the Old Smithy in Blisland on Bodmin Moor.  Every year when the Primroses begin to flower we remember ‘Auntie’ June (and her cooking) with affection.  Such a lovely lady.

June Runnalls in the gardens at Tregenna Cottage, Blisland, Cornwall
June Runnalls in the gardens at Tregenna Cottage, Blisland, Cornwall


The clumps of Primroses can be lifted and divided in the autumn.  Gently separate the fleshy stems so that each piece has a visible bud and plant immediately to make sure the stems do not dry out.  Primroses can also be sown from seed.

Pin and Thrum Flowers

An interesting feature of Primroses is that the flowers take two forms (dimorphic).  These two forms are differentiated by the position of the sigma (female structure) and anthers (male structures) in the flower tube of the Primrose flower.  The two forms are known as ‘Pin’ and ‘Thrum’.    In ‘Pin’ flowers the stigma is at the top of the flower tube with the anthers positioned halfway down. In ‘Thrum’ flowers the stigma is positioned halfway down with the anthers at the top.  Individual plants have either Pin flowers or Thrum flowers.

These different flower types were studied by Charles Darwin no less and his paper of 1862 is in fact very readable.  He also observed that crosses between plants with thrum flowers and those with pin flowers were more fertile than those between the same type.  Sarah Shailes reports that this may be one of a number of mechanisms that encourage cross-pollination in Primroses and prevent flowers being self-fertilised with genetically identical pollen.

Rather charmingly Darwin highlights the importance of the different forms to country craft pursuits   “Village children notice this difference, as they can best make necklaces by threading and slipping the corollas of the long-styled flowers into each other.

Distyly primula

A – Pin form, B- Thrum form  (Legend: (1) corolla, (2) calix, (3) anthers, (4) style).

Image By berru (English: self-made Français : travail personnel) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Crystallising Primrose flowers

Primroses are really too short stemmed to be very useful for floristry although they do make charming posies and are often picked by children as a gift for Mother’s Day.  Single flowers in water can also make a pretty addition to a table setting.

Because the flowers are edible they can be crystallised and used to decorate a wide range of cakes and other dishes.  Using a fine brush paint the flowers with egg white on both sides of the petals and then sprinkle caster sugar carefully over them.  Knock off any surplus sugar and allow to dry and then store in an air tight container until required.  According to Maddock Farm Organics these flowers will last a couple of weeks.  They also indicate that using diluted gum arabic instead of egg white can give a longer shelf life.

Further information

Hardy  perennial

Origin:  Western and Southern Europe

Latin name:  Primula vulgaris  (derivation Primula:  First flowering, vulgaris: Common)

Family:  Primulaceae

Hardiness:  RHS hardiness rating H7  (Hardy in the severest European continental climates (< -20))

Height:  c. 10cm

Flowering period:  February to April

Toxicity:  Edible

Floriography:  First love, childhood, innocence and lover’s doubts

References and further reading

“The pin and thrum of primroses” by Sarah Shailes

Darwin, C. R. 1862. On the two forms, or dimorphic condition, in the species of Primula, and on their remarkable sexual relations. [Read 21 November 1861] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 6: 77-96.

“100 flowers and how they got their names” by Diana Wells (ISBN 1-56512-138-4)

“The language of flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (ISBN 978-0-230-75258-0)