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What are Primroses?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2016
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Primroses are showy ornamental flowers which can be found growing in gardens and in the wild on every continent except Antarctica, although they thrive in the cool temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere in particular. There are a number of primrose varieties, but the most famous is probably Primula vulgaris, the Common or English Primrose, which is planted as an ornamental in many gardens. Primroses are a cinch to grow, and they are quite attractive, with a delicate aroma which some people find quite pleasing.

The term “primrose” can refer to any plant in the Primula genus. Flowers in this genus are characterized by having broad basal leaves which grow low to the ground, fleshy stalks, and five-petaled flowers which may be white, yellow, red, purple, pink, or creamy in color. The flowers also have a very subtle sweet aroma which can be enhanced by massing the flowers close together, creating a richly scented planting.

Primroses are perennials, and they can be coaxed into flowering almost year round in some areas, as long as gardeners are diligent about removing dead flowers. They will also spread readily, with attractive dark green foliage visible when the plants are not flowering. In colder climates, primroses will go dormant over the winter, bursting into flower in the early spring; the name “primrose” is a reference to this, derived from the Medieval Latin prima rosa, or “first rose.”

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Most primroses prefer shade to part shade, and they like to be kept cool and moist, growing in USDA zones three through nine. They may grow in warmer zones, but they benefit from a winter chill, flowering more brilliantly and spreading readily after the cold of the winter. Because primroses benefit from a darker environment, they are a good choice for planting on the north side of the house in the Northern Hemisphere, and they can also be planted under ornamental shrubs.

Many people like to use primroses for ornamental borders, where they can form a mass of attractive color. They can also be encouraged to spread as a groundcover, classically choking out weeds as they grow. The flowers and leaves of the primrose are actually edible, with a slightly tangy flavor which some people find enjoyable. These flowers are also good additions to an old-fashioned garden.

Incidentally, the plant called the “evening primrose” is in the genus Oenothera. Although primroses and evening primroses are in the same class, these flowers have a number of differences which make them hard to confuse in person.

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