12 April 2015 - 2:33pm

Primroses and violets

Easter means primroses, cowslips and violets to me. Daffodils too, but I have written many times about those fab bulbs, so it’s the first two lovelies I am going to wax lyrical about this time. The name ‘Primula veris’, the cowslip, appeared in literature as a remedy as far back as 1101. Leonardo da Vinci was supposed to have found their leaves tasty – I don’t recommend you try that at home! The common primrose Primula vulgaris has also been around for centuries, and the two often cross pollinate to make what is commonly called the false oxlip, P. variabilis. It’s is a big family, also producing polyanthus which flood our garden centres in March and April with a massive range of bright colours. Polyanthis means ‘many flowers’ and you will see if you look closely they have several flowers at the end of one stem, unlike the primrose. Having said that, other colours have been cropping up for a long while, with red primroses being referred to around 1600. I have some orangey red cowslips in my garden which I tolerate despite my love of the yellow ones! Double primroses are also not an invention of modern breeders, for example the lovely P.lilicina plena ‘Quakers Bonnett’ dates back to the eighteenth century. I find the double ones a bit fussier and harder to grow, but if you find the right spot they are charming. When you are planting primroses, have a think about how they grow in the wild. They thrive at the edge of woodland, not in deep shade, and you will also see them on embankments where they will seed themselves down the slopes on the motorway and by the railways. They do not like hot, dry sunny places and are fine under deciduous shrubs and trees where there is a little sun in spring before the leaf cover gets thicker and it stays fairly damp. Violets are a perfect companion plant to primroses, enjoying similar growing conditions. They too are steeped in folklore, the Ancient Greeks loved them for both their prettiness and for medicinal use. They aren’t wildly showy, and you have to get down on your knees to sniff their gorgeous fragrance but it’s worth it even if your knees are old and creaky like mine! Violets spread quite quickly using runners (bit like strawberries) and can be propagated very easily. Like the primrose there are many old and new cultivars, mainly in the white/pink/violet range. ‘Diana Groves’ is a new violet grown by Groves Nurseries www.grovesnurseries.co.uk with wine red petals. ‘Lianne’ is deep purple with a strong perfume, raised in France at the turn of the 20th century. So how about this – find yourself a spot with decent soil in gentle shade, not too dry. Dig in some leafmould or compost and plant a bed of snowdrops (you can lift and divide them now), violets, primroses, wood anemones, hardy cyclamen and miniature daffodils such as N. Tete a Tete (use the ones you had in pots on the windowsill) for an early flower and N. Hawera for later. Keep well watered and enjoy every spring!