Primroses & Cowslips

Common Primrose Mealy Cowslip Common Primrose Oxlip

What are they?

The primulas are a well-known group, both as wild plants of woods and waysides and cultivated plants of gardens. They are low-growing, herbaceous perennials, many with flowers held well above the leaves on a common stalk. Our wild plants are distinguished by their deeply corrugated leaves and yellow, five-petalled flowers that appear in spring. Hybridisation among the primulas is commonplace and has been exploited in horticulture to produce a bewildering array of forms and colours. In addition, a number of other species have been introduced, some of which have made their way into the wider countryside.

Where are they found?

Native species are plants of open woodland and grassy places, while cultivated forms can be found in churchyards, amenity areas and other grassy sites.

Identification

Because of the abundance of hybrids, both natural and cultivated, identification sometimes needs to be made carefully. With the native species, the shape of the base of the leaf and size and shape of flowers is important. Cultivated plants most often involve varieties of Common Primrose, or varieties of its hybrid with cowslip - commonly called 'Polyanthus'. The presence or absence of a common flowerstalk that carries several flowers is an important distinction.



Common Primrose      Primula vulgaris

Native. Widespread and common, even abundant in suitable habitat in woods, roadside banks and similar places. Most common on heavier soils, avoiding drier, sandy areas, but also widespread as an escape from cultivation. Flowers March to May, sometimes earlier. Typically differs from other native Primula species by its larger flowers (30-40mm across) and the lack of a common flower stalk, each flower arising individually from the leaf rosette. However, there is an uncommon form, caulescens, that does have flowers on a common stalk. In this case, the larger flowers and rather loose head with long flower stalks should distinguish it from the primrose hybrids. Native plants are usually pale yellow but occasionally may be white or pink (although deep pink flowers may be evidence of cross pollination with cultivated forms). Leaves narrow gradually into the petiole at the base.

Common Primrose Common Primrose Common Primrose Common Primrose
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Common Primrose Common Primrose Common Primrose Common Primrose
Form caulescens
Form caulescens
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Leaf


Cultivated Primrose      Primula vulgaris cultivated forms

These are cultivated forms of our native Common Primrose which are widely used in amenity plantings, cemeteries and gardens and regularly appear in the wider countryside, where they may backcross with wild ancestors. Flowers March to May, sometimes earlier. Cultivated forms may be virtually any colour, it seems, though typically they have a yellow centre. Richly red or blue forms may not be true Common Primroses but may have some other primrose species in their genes. Modern cultivars also include strangely disfigured, 'pompom' forms which lack any of the beauty and charm of the native species. Leaves narrow gradually at the base, like those of the wild species.

Cultivated Primrose Common Primrose Common Primrose Common Primrose
Cultivated form
Cultivated form
Cultivated form
Double flowers


False Oxlip      Primula x polyantha

This hybrid between Common Primrose and Cowslip occurs naturally where the two species meet in the wild, but is also the source of many of our garden bedding 'Polyanthus'. Flowers March to May, sometimes earlier. Native plants somewhat resemble Oxlip (hence the English name) but tend to have long glandular hairs mixed with shorter ones on the calyx and flower stalk. Cultivated forms come in an almost bewildering array of colours and are perhaps worthy of placing under a different name to native plants. Some authorities use Primula x polyantha as a name for the cultivated hybrids and Primula x tommasinii for the wild hybrid.

False Oxlip False Oxlip False Oxlip False Oxlip
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False Oxlip False Oxlip False Oxlip
Cultivated form
Cultivated form
Cultivated form


Oxlip      Primula elatior

Native. A rare species in the UK with the entire national population being confined to East Anglia, in southwest Suffolk, northwest Essex and southeast Cambridgeshire. Occurs in areas of ancient woodland or along hedgebanks that are remnants of such places. Flowers late March to early May. Calyx and flower stalk with only short, glandular hairs, distinguishing it from Primula x polyantha. Leaves rather abruptly contracted at the base.

Oxlip Oxlip Oxlip Oxlip
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Common Cowslip      Primula veris

Native. Widespread and quite common in open, grassy habitats throughout the region, though absent from drier, acid soils. Occurs both as a native and as an introduction from wildflower seed mixes or deliberate plantings. Flowers April to May. A well known plant of grassy places with flowers smaller and deeper yellow than our other two native species. Leaf blades very abruptly narrowed into the petiole at the base.

Common Cowslip Common Cowslip Common Cowslip Common Cowslip
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Mealy Cowslip      Primula pulverulenta

Introduced from China and not uncommon as a garden plant for wet areas. Rarely escapes but reported for a single site in Suffolk. Flowers May to June. Flowers usually bright carmine pink but occasionally other colours. The stems and young leaves are covered in a white mealy coating, which distinguishes it from the otherwise rather similar Japanese Cowslip.

Mealy Cowslip Mealy Cowslip Mealy Cowslip Mealy Cowslip
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Japanese Cowslip      Primula japonica

Introduced from Japan as a garden plant for damp areas. Rarely escapes but is well established at Thursford, Norfolk and was found in a wet wood in Honingham, Norfolk in 2017. Flowers April to May. Flowers deep reddish purple with a paler eye. Stems and young leaves not are covered in a white mealy coating.

Japanese Cowslip Japanese Cowslip Japanese Cowslip Japanese Cowslip
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Hybrid Primrose      Primula x pruhonicensis

A horticultural creation, with Primula vulgaris and P. juliae as the main parents, but perhaps including other species in its parentage. Fairly popular as a garden plant and occasionally spreading from original plantings in churchyards. Flowers April to May. A small, compact species with usually rich, burgundy-coloured flowers. A popular form is sold under the name Primula 'Wanda'. Differs from similarly-coloured varieties of primrose by being almost hairless.

Hybrid Primrose Hybrid Primrose Hybrid Primrose
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