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French garden diary - primrose primula perfection

Cathy Thompson explains her enduring passion for the humble primrose

In my botanic garden ‘youth’ we spent many hours once a month in late winter and spring loading up the van with alpine gems to take up to the RHS early season shows.

I fell hard for the primulas – perfection in their clay half pots, but sometimes not for the open garden.

Plants like the ‘show’ auriculas are best grown in well-ventilated cold-frames, sheltered with glass in winter, because the beautiful mealy farina (dusting of white) on leaves and petals is easily destroyed by rain.

These auriculas were the favourite hobby flower of home-working weavers in Cheshire and Lancashire, since they were always on hand to dash out and protect them with umbrellas if rainfall threatened!

I have plenty of wild and hybrid Primula vulgaris here in France, exported from a previous Irish garden.

They seed around happily where I have planted them in summer-shady positions – usually in the damp crevices of a rustic stone path.

Primulas have a nice ability to cope with drought, provided they have shade – they merely shrivel their leaves and hunker down, before springing to life again with autumn and winter rains. So, now that I know that I can grow the easy ones even in my hot garden, I am going to get more daring.

It came as a huge thrill to discover last year that one of my favourite groups, the Barnhaven primroses and polyanthus, created by the American, Florence Bellis, now have their ‘seed home’ in France.

Florence lived in Portland, Oregon and, in difficult personal circumstances, bought what she describes as a ‘shell of a barn’ at Johnson Creek, Gresham, near Portland in 1936.

She had trained as a pianist, but now she set about creating a business hybridising and selling primulas, then relatively new in the United States.

Years later (in the words of the present Barnhaven custodians) the primroses had ‘crossed the Atlantic to the Lake District in England and then the English Channel … [and] settled in a small village in Brittany, France.’

Each of the five successive custodians, from Florence onwards, passed their stock of seed personally to the next, probably with Florence’s original words in mind ‘Yours – to keep or kill’. The aim, arising from primula passion, has always been to create ‘perfect colour and perfect form’.

It was the rich, velvety colours that first entranced me when I started growing them in Suffolk in the 1990s. Who could resist the names of the different colour groupings? We can still choose from ‘Marine Blues’, ‘Indian Reds’, ‘Fuchsia Victorians’, ‘Chartreuse’ and ‘Valentine Victorians’. And gardeners will continue to be fascinated by the ancient pedigrees of some of the oldest forms that Florence took up, such as the gold-laced polyanthus, ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ and ‘Hose-in-Hose’.

The current custodians of Barnhaven primulas say that seed is produced in exactly the same way as Florence pioneered: she hand-pollinated the flowers by emasculating (removing the anthers) from her plants. This meant she did not have to use brushes or sterilisation.

Sowing seed is very easy – but it has to be pretty fresh, which is where a good seed-supplying nursery like Barnhaven steps in. You can find plenty of good advice on the Barnhaven website (

In my own garden I am inclined to sow in a gritty, well-drained compost, in wide clay half pots (drainage is much better in clay than plastic) and then cover very lightly with vermiculite, just to conserve surface moisture; primula seed needs light to germinate.

Alternatively, do not use vermiculite, but place a little shading or light fleece over the pots and mist them over regularly in warm weather to stop the surface drying out completely.

The pots will go out into an open, lightly shaded cold frame in February/March (a little frost helps germination) and the seed should germinate in three to nine weeks.

Leave the seedlings until they have made at least four leaves and then prick out into individual pots –do not shun the smallest seedlings, since often the most interesting colours are the weakest, genetically (Barnhaven seed is still sold in specific colour mixes).

This is something to remember when sowing a colour mixture of most plants. Keep cool, well-shaded and watered until they establish and are ready to plant out – probably in the following autumn.

Florence’s story has entranced me as much as the primroses themselves. If you are interested to read about Barnhaven’s conception in her own words, visit

Or look at the Barnhaven site itself for the whole story: It is an enchanting tale of an enduring horticultural love affair, birthed in adversity.

Visit Barnhaven at Keranguiner, 22310 Plestin les Grèves, by appointment.


See also: Primulas catch the eye in more French gardens


Over to you …

Is there a group of plants that has held you captivated, throughout your gardening life?

Let me know about them – and especially why you like them by email at


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