Part 3 of a series of posts on My Garden in Spring by E. A. Bowles

Jim Thorleifson

Primulas

My Garden in Spring

E. A. Bowles

CHAPTER VIII

Primulas

I used to think this garden was unsuitable for Primulas other than the commonest forms of Primroses, but patience and a certain amount of manoeuvring have somewhat increased the possibilities, though still an extra hot and dry year like 1911 frizzles up the double garden varieties and parches P. rosea beyond recovery. The earliest to flower is P. megasiaefolia, or perhaps I should say to try to flower, for from December onward this foolishly precocious plant gets a flower-bud irretrievably damaged about once a fortnight, and seldom succeeds in opening one. P. cashmireana often shoots up a mushroom-shaped mass of buds in January only to be blackened and end in decay, but P. marginata manages better and, by keeping close under its leaves at first, opens the earliest of its flowers with the Hepaticas. It is such a good-tempered and lovely thing, both in flower and leaf, I wonder one does not see it oftener. In a real Primrose-beloved garden it should be possible to have edgings of it, and how lovely they would be. Here I have to find a cool corner with stones to keep its roots moist to make it happy, and some clumps in the rock garden reward my care with a fine show of flowers: one is a particularly blue form, and having deeply-toothed leaves is good to look at all its days pays rent all the year in fact. I have a rather interesting set of named forms with widely-differing shapes of leaves and the much-praised garden form Mrs. Hall Walker, whose flowers I have not seen yet, but have great hopes of them next season founded upon the present fatness of the central crown. I spent a very happy day up in the Cottian Alps this last June collecting some lovely forms, and hope to make a good planting as soon as I can get them out of the sand frame where they are making their new roots after being pulled to bits.

I once thought I did not greatly care for Alpine Primulas, they seemed to me so much given to thin magenta colouring, but a few weeks among them in Tyrol, with Mr. Farrer as interpreter of their charms, converted me, and he likes to remind me of my declaration that I should not collect more than two or three of each and the contradictory reality of the full tins I carried on my poor old back down those mountain sides. A few of the purple, almost blue, bells of P. glutinosa on the Venna Thal enlightened me, and a mountain side rosy-purple for a mile or more with P. spectabilis in full bloom, as a Scotch hillside might be with heather, finished the work. But then both in their native hills are revelations of what Primulas can be. Picking out the largest white-eyed forms of spectabilis and selecting the most rosy and least aniline I found as fascinating as any bit of collecting I had ever done. Just picture to yourself a turfy mountain side, worn by weather and sheep, or goats, into countless horizontal miniature terraces such as one often finds in a steep bit of the South Downs, and under the brow of each terrace fancy clumps of a dozen to twenty rosettes of a green-leaved garden Auricula whose large heads of flowers are of every shade of rose and crimson, so that looking up the hill you get the full stare of their friendly eyes and every one you look at seems to possess some varietal charm of its own – a clearer white eye, a warmer rose tint, or fuller and rounder flower. Can you wonder that I was on my knees every other minute plunging my trowel into the tufts to extract half a dozen of the rosettes? Just two or three of the best indeed! that tin was a heavy load to carry down, and there was much work sorting and packing my chosen few. Just the same when I found myself face to face with it in another district, and where, meeting with P. minima, there were interesting hybrids, exciting to look for and so entrancingly beautiful when found that I discovered I could not bear to live without P. Facchinii and P. Dumoulinii. P. oenensis had to follow, and longiflora with its charming, mealy stem filled my gardening soul with greed and every spare corner of my tin with its neat rosettes, and eventually the boot-bag I carry in a pocket in case of overcrowding had to come out and hang round my neck to hold that mealy-leaved golden glory P. Auricula Bauhinii.

A few days later Mr. Farrer took me to another ridge just to look at other interesting Primulas, but I think he had long ceased to believe in my intention of just gazing and then picking out a trinity of mementoes of the vision, so he was not surprised that, when I had at last got over staring at the unbelievable, fantastic beauty of the great Dolomite peak that hung over our heads, I fell to eagerly on the crevices which harboured P. tyrolensis and hunted the open turf for its very local minima-bred hybrid P. Juribella, and at last owned myself vanquished by the beauty of Alpine Primulas at home, when I saw the peaty hillside blue with P. glutinosa, there as common as Cowslips in a home meadow, instead of dotted singly as on the Brenner. Home they went in the largest tins I could cajole out of reluctant head waiters, and how will they behave here is now the burning question. On arrival they were all pulled asunder, and as separate rosettes planted in lines in a frame in almost pure sand and leaf soil. By the autumn they looked fat and leafy above, and by experimental liftings were proved to have made long, white roots and to be ready to go out. An overgrown portion of the rock garden, hitherto sacred to Geranium species, was torn down and rebuilt to imitate the Tyrolean homes from which I had exiled my Primulas. I had to leave out the Cimon della Parla and the Drei Zinnen, but hope the carefully-mixed soils I have given them will make them so happy that they will not look up and miss such trifles.

Peat in small quantities, leaf mould used generously, a stiffening of the soufflé resulting from these two by a liberal dose of the old soil, and the main geological formation of this miniature range was ready for adaptation to the special wants of its flora. Feeling too poor to invest in granite chips or even birdcage sand, I commandeered a load of our native red gravel, well screened, from the estate mason’s storehouse and worked it into my too sticky compost in varying quantities. The lower slopes, reserved for P. minima, longiflora, and glutinosa, had only enough to make the soil feel sharp and gritty, but vertical crevices prepared for Auricula and tyrolensis had the upper two or three inches well reddened with the gravel. The hybrids had a middle position of intermediate grittiness and spectabilis has gone to the upper slopes. How magnificent it sounds! That is the fun of writing of one’s garden: a steep bank can be a cliff, a puddle a pool, a pool a lake, bog and moraine sound as though a guide were needed to find your way across them, and yet may be covered by a sheet of The Times. My Dolomites lie within the compass of my out-stretched arms, and there is not much wasted space now the Primulas are settled in. So far they have thriven amazingly, and this Spring, when the curtain rang up, the Auricula forms first took the stage. The Bauhinii troupe were quite as fine with their large Daffodil-yellow, white- eyed flowers on stout stems as on their own hillside. The ciliata lot with their deep green mealless leaves gave blossoms as nearly orange as when found wild. Oenensis took the next turn, and pleased me more here than when at home: the flowers looked less aniline in colour and had such pleasant white eyes, but perhaps I had picked out the best forms only. Longiflora’s was the star performance, however. Before going to rest for the winter they formed fat crowns like small cabbages, and this May each rosette sent up two stems, and the main one bore twenty or more blossoms, instead of the half dozen or so I had found them contented with at home. I had never seen this species alive before I went to its home to meet it, as it is apparently seldom grown in gardens, and in spite of all this appearance of vigour I cannot help feeling there must be something wrong about its constitution to have prevented its sharing cottage-garden edgings with Thrift and Daisies.

So I have saved some seeds to prepare for squalls, and I noticed that where the rosettes have waxed so strong they insist on sending up ridiculous, dwarfed, flower-crowded stems at intervals all the summer through, and doing nothing towards a fat cabbage for next winter’s sleep. Several have gone off yellow, as its near relative farinosa so often does after a good orgy of flowering, and I rather expect it will be best to starve longiflora into less ambitious displays or, if it comes easily from seed, treat it as a biennial. If it can be so grown it will be well worth the trouble: the mealy calyx and reddish-purple flowers “reether redder than I could wish ” as Bailey Junior said of his imaginary beard were wonderfully good to see when at their best. P. glutinosa lives and grows, but, as I believe to be only too usual in English gardens, has offered no trace of a flower. No more has tyrolensis, but has made such deep green rosettes and wide leaves that they must surely mean a promise of good things later on. Minima and the hybrids looked so chubby and cheery on their return to greenness I expected great things of them, but never a bud appeared until I had given up looking for them, and at the end of June I was astonished by a goodly sprinkling of rosy-purple and a few pure white blooms, all as large and well-coloured as when I selected them. But the stupid things were so pleased at pleasing me they have tried to go on with it, and through the Dog Days have kept on sending up mean, flabby, starry caricatures of their former successes. P. spectabilis opened a very few eyes, but has been so busy working up a stock of large green leaves that it had no time for such frivolities as flowers this season.

P. pedemontana behaved in the same way its first season in the pipe-bed, and made up for it by a charming display this May. Its ugly duckling hybrid child P. Bowlesii shot up its taller scape too. It is ungrateful of me to speak slightingly of this plant after its dedication to me, but in case you are thinking of rushing off to Mt. Cenis to hunt for it I had better be honest and say it is very scarce: a whole morning of careful search this June rewarded Mr. Farrer and me with three plants of it, and between us we do not miss much when we hunt for a thing systematically. Also it is fair to say that in spite of its lovely parents, rosy pedemontana and the true viscosa of imperial purple, it is a mawkish magenta in all the specimens we have found save one, which was a cheery crimson-purple, and so good that at first sight I thought it too good to be true Bowlesii. I wonder how this name will be pronounced should it be tried by Poles and Russians, Germans, Turks or Prooshians, or an I-talian. I rather fear it will become Bovvleaysiee. Anyway I was glad to be the first to flower my Primrose, and to be able to send a scape and leaves to the British Museum, though it was not in time to appear at the Primula Conference. It has made the most curious long and narrow leaves this summer, and at present looks totally unlike either parent.

P. frondosa is a good plant for the sand and water-pipe moraine even in fullest sun, and never looked so well here with other treatment. Whether it be the true frondosa of Janka or no, has been much debated, and at present it is comforting to know that the latest authorities pronounce it genuine, as the type specimen is suspected of having lost its mealiness through maturity, and therefore Pax and Knuth’s upsetting decree that it must be without meal need not be regarded.* Where farinosa refuses to settle and be comfortable frondosa makes a fine substitute, though it lacks in my eyes the grace of our native plant, and is rather too leafy and clumsy in build. The new Chinese P. Knuthiana is a still larger form of the same type of Primrose, but after flowering appears to make rosettes without sufficient roots, and so is liable to turn flabby and then yellow in hot weather, and seems hard to restore to health. Old plants look very queer here now, in the pipe-bed, but what appear to be self-sown seedlings are racing along to fill up their places.

[* Since writing this I have seen a plant straight from its native Balkans which is as mealy as any miller.]

P. Juliae, the new comer from Trans-Caucasia, has behaved here as a real lady, just as the bearer of such a name should. Two tuffets came from Herr Sundermann early in the year, their canary-coloured labels the showiest part of them. Cossetted for a little in a frame and then put out in cool, leafy soil they flowered brilliantly in late April. The astonishing crimson-purple of their flowers is in such sharp contrast with the brilliant yellow eye that every one exclaims ” Oh! ” ” Marvellous!! ” ” My stars!!! ” ” Crikey!!!! ” or something else according to the richness of their vocabulary, when they first see it. Not only have they developed their characteristic runners with new crowns at their ends, but when I parted the leaves to enjoy a sight of these promises for next year I found they were indulging in a little quiet practice for next Spring’s flowering, and had several half-sized blossoms hidden away below, but as brilliant in colouring as ever. Of the two I possess, the plant in fat soil in a half-shaded border has done better than the other in the poorer soil of an old portion of the rock garden, and it looks as though the right treatment for it is the same that one would give to the choicer double Primroses.

They, poor dears, are not very happy here, except in wet seasons, and a Spring visit to Ireland always fills me with envy, and longings for a climate that can produce such double whites, French greys, and lilacs, and also clumps of Polyanthus of such size, and flowers of such texture and colouring. Short of digging a ditch for them I fear I must not expect to see them thrive here.

In this neighbourhood Cowslips are wild in some of the meadows, but Primroses are very scarce, only occurring along a ditch or two, and possibly not truly wild there. Among the wild Cowslips in one of our meadows there occurs an interesting form in which the orange spots, so characteristic of the plant, are wanting. I have brought it into the garden, and it remains perfectly true, and is seeding about freely, and I hope to soon observe how large a percentage will resemble the parents. I always look at Cowslips in other places to see if they too show this variation, but have never seen it elsewhere. Knuth in his Handbook of Flower Pollination mentions that ” Flowers devoid of this (orange-red) patch have been observed by Kirchner in Wurtemberg and Appel (as he tells me in a letter) at Wurzburg.” I have a great affection for Cowslips, and so grow all the forms I can get now, and long for the curious green and double ones figured in the old herbals. A beautiful orange-coloured form was given to me by Mrs. Robb, who told me she remembered it from her early childhood, but had lost sight of it for many years, till, staying at her old home Great Tew, one of the children came to say good- night and carried a bunch of Cowslips, among them the orange one. ” Don’t take that dear child to bed, Nurse, until she has found the plant she picked these from, and put in a stick beside it,” said this imperious old lady, and as she was generally obeyed the Cowslip found its way to her charming garden at Goldenfield and thence to me. ” Pick out the best you can see,” she bade me; ” they won’t all come true, but you might as well start with the best form,” and I greatly treasure this memento of her generosity and happy days at Goldenfield. A silver Cowslip of palest yellow Canon Ellacombe gave me, and other interesting forms are due to my always collecting a plant or two from every alpine district in which I meet with it. Most of them are the form known as Columnae, with cordate leaves on long petioles and flowers approaching P. elatior. On Mt. Cenis one finds every sort of intermediate, and a botanist might spend years there cataloguing their variations. Elatior itself has overrun a portion of the rock garden, but is so charming it may keep on running as long as Charlie’s Aunt.

There have been bold men who declared true elatior never hybridised, but Mr. Wolley-Dod gave me some living proofs that such statements were inaccurate, for these plants have elatior form but the colouring of various red and pink Primroses, and I myself have found several seedlings with flowers bearing traces of Primrose characters. Pax and Knuth give no less than two pages to the various hybrid forms due to its liaisons with P. acaulis and P. officinalis. One of them, P. anisiaca, has been praised for its floriferous character by Mr. Farrer, and he kindly gave me part of each of his forms of it, but here it suffers so from thirst in summer that it does not flower through the whole Winter and Spring as with him, but is a dwarf and Interesting form.

I am very fond of the various purple or lilac forms of Primrose that come from Turkey and the Near East. The good old plant, sold so unblushingly as P. amoena – the true plant belonging to that name not being in cultivation at present – should be known as P. acaulis, var. rubra, say Pax and Knuth, but Dr. MacWatt has raked up the name of Sibthorpei Pax for it, in spite of the great man and his coadjutor having placed it as a synonym in their monograph. It is the single form of the old double lilac, and in its best forms of that same charming cool colour. I have also a deeper form, almost a purple – another of Mrs. Robb’s good things. She saw it on Mount Olympus, and much to the annoyance of her magnificent dragoman, who was dressed in a uniform richer in gold lace than that of the most distinguished general, she insisted on his dismounting from his horse and digging up some roots with a broken potsherd, the only weapon that offered itself. She told me its purple glory always reminded her of the rueful face of that glittering dragoman.

These forms require, at any rate here, frequent division and replanting in soil freshened by leaf mould and cow manure. They dwindle if left alone for more than two years, but if well looked after are very charming in good broad plantings. P. cortusoides and its garden descendants, who have not descended but have very much gone up in the world as to size, appearance, and general affluence, need more leaf mould and choicer, cool corners than the garden can commonly afford, so they are not broadly planted, and only to be found in a few nooks of the rock garden, where the white and lavender forms of Sieboldii are very welcome to spread if they will do it on their own responsibility.

P. Veitchii I have tried to like, and failed to do more than tolerate. A white form I could love, but the type is so defiantly aniline in its choice of red that I should neither cry nor purchase a successor should it die of my cold neglect. On the contrary the smaller-flowered, equally aniline, Cortusa Matthioli has a firm hold on my affections, perhaps grounded in the memories of pleasant mornings in the cool gully, where among fallen boulders and a dwarf forest of Alnus viridis I first saw its downy leaves and crimson buds planted by Nature’s own hand. It is a strange place, that gully, part of the only woodland for miles around, on the shady side of the Mt. Cenis lake. You must mount up to the col and cross into France and begin to descend before you find another thicket of the Alder, but there you will find no Cortusa, for on the Cenis it is wholly confined to this gully. There it is very abundant under the straggling stems of the Alder, growing in rich leaf soil, or tufts of moss, or apparently nothing but rock and atmosphere, but always, always in shade. Snow lies late in this hollow, and must be very deep in winter, for the Alders are flattened under it as though a steam roller had been over them, and what looks from below like a slope of dwarf bushes is the most difficult thing to climb among I can imagine; the long, prostrate stems give under your feet, catch round your ankles, and whip your legs, and the upright portions are no good to catch hold of for support, as they join on to the long and supple stems that lie on the ground, but do not root again, and so pull away with your weight and sway about, and are less helpful than a broken reed. But wherever there is a space among their stems, Cortusa, Soldanella montana, and Saxifraga rotundifolia fill it up. I had often purchased Cortusa and tried it in various positions in the rock garden, and always failed to make it happy enough to live the round of a year, but some of those I brought away from this shady grove have thriven and increased among Hepaticas and Wood Anemones in a border shaded by Purple-leaved Hazels.

The Spring Primulas wind up with the dumb-waiter- like whorled flower-heads of P. japonica and its family. Their idea of luxury is mud, and it suits their requirements as well as those of a cockle-gatherer. The margin of a pond and the bottom of a not too wet ditch provide a happy home for them, and failing these the richer and moister soil you can give them, the better will be the result. There are some good colour forms of japonica, a so-called salmon, which is much more like anchovy sauce if one must give it a fishy name, a pure white with large orange eye, one of the loveliest of Primroses, and a very deep coppery red one, so there is no need to tolerate the old magenta forms and still less the speckled and ring-straked abominations that a bad white strain produces so freely among its seedlings. Even P. pulverulenta is crude and twangy beside the best deep japonica. I planted some seedlings along the pond edge and grouped pulverulenta with the deep red and white japonicas, and directly I had done so was sorry, believing the Chinese pulverulenta would kill the colour of the Japanese. When they flowered it was the Chinese that were defeated, and had to be removed to a separate cantonment for sake of peace to the eye. By itself the Chinese, mealy-stemmed fellow is not bad, and among wildish grass on the edge of a small pool at the bottom of the rock garden I thought its crimson tiers quite lovely enough to leave them to seed if they will, as their own mother did higher up, by the trickle that overflows from one little pool and fills another. From these, poor lady, she was ejected as she was so cabbage-like in profusion of foliage and so smothering to choicer neighbours, white Calthas and Cyananthus lobatus, and this last, like the Princes in the Tower, died this very stuffy death before I noticed what was going on. I could forgive almost any plant’s death by overcrowding if it were done by that lovely new mutation or sport, or whatever the style of its origin may be described as, which was shown at the Royal International Show and named Mrs. Berkeley. I understand it appeared at Coombe Wood without warning among a batch of ordinary pulverulenta seedlings, and although it has a good sturdy constitution, so far as I can learn it has refused to bear seed. I put two plants out in a sort of ditch we made across a newly-arranged bed. This ditch idea is a try-on to see if its northern facing slope will be cool and acceptable to ferns and Primulas of thirsty habits. This one liked it, and the spikes of flowers were in beauty for a long period. I cannot think of any name to describe their colour, but I believe I could mix Naples yellow and Rose madder and arrive at something like its creamy flesh tint, and it shades into apricot and tawny orange in the eye, which gives the flower a warm glow. Yes, I hope it will spread and the ferns be obliged to flee before it. P. Cockburniana at present has a place in the ditch, but I lose it here after flowering, but mean to try it up in the fish hatchery, where, dry above and wet below, it may behave as luckier folk have found it to do, and grow into a clump.

The lovely hybrid ” Unique Improved ” did well at first, and allowed me to split it up into a nice colony, then some- thing offended it, and every crown yellowed and decayed, leaving nothing but an orphaned seedling which flowered this year and was little more than a living image of its grandpa, Cockburniana.

Edward Augustus Bowles

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