Sandy’s Garden ... Primula Denticulata

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

It was the last Saturday in April.

The gardening correspondent of one of the Falkirk Herald’s sibling newspapers … The Scotsman … wrote enthusiastically about the virtues of a plant which is as often referred to by its Sunday name of Primula denticulata as it is by its so-called common name of ‘drumstick primula’ on account of the flower head being reminiscent of the large-headed drumstick wielded by the big drummer in a pipe band. Also known … occasionally … as the ‘tooth-leaved primrose’, this last name is pretty much a direct translation of the Latin Primula denticulata, for denticulata translates as ‘slightly toothed’ and refers to the shape of the leaves; and primrose is a modern English version of the mediaeval ‘prima rosa’ … the ‘first flower’ … which is, in turn, an anglification of the Latin primula.

Primula denticulata is, in formal horticultural terminology, “a herbaceous perennial growing to 30cm high, with obovate leaves mealy beneath. Flowers are up to 18mm in width, pale or deep purple with a yellow eye, borne in dense rounded heads on the erect stems.” A ‘herbaceous perennial’ is a plant which does not have any permanent shoots above ground level and which appears year after year, the essential core of the plant surviving the winter underground; obovate leaves are leaves which are teardrop-shaped, attached to the stem of the parent plant at the tapering point; and ‘mealy beneath’ indicates that the underside of the leaves is covered with granules resembling meal. Put like that, the drumstick primrose does not sound particularly attractive. But read what the noted horticulturist Jim Jermym has to say on the subject in his fascinating book The Himalayan Garden …published by Timber Press Inc. in 2001 … where he opines that there can be no finer sight in the bog garden than bold clumps of Primula denticulata which can be enjoyed in drifts broken up by marsh marigolds.

Primula denticulata is an easily-grown, hardy garden plant that will thrive in a variety of soils but needs to be watered during dry summer months. It actually quite likes heavy soil and is ideal for shaded borders in small gardens. The drumstick-shaped flowers are prominent in May and June. This particular primula was introduced into the British Isles in the 1830s, seed having been collected in Nepal either by Dr. Francis Buchanan or by John Forbes Royle, two of the many Victorian plant collectors – accounts differ as to which of the two deserves the credit. What is not in dispute is that Veitch Nurseries of London and Exeter, the largest group of family-run plant nurseries in Europe during the 19th century, began to grow the plants commercially, introducing them to British gardeners in 1842. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Many plants inspired British enthusiasts to found dedicated societies during the long years of Queen Victoria’s reign; and primulas were no exception, the National Auricula & Primula Society being founded in 1872 and the Scottish Primula and Auricula Society in 1887. Unfortunately, the Scottish society failed after five years. However, a new society was established in 2015; and the (new) Scottish Auricula & Primula Society is holding its 2nd Show on Saturday, May 14th in Auchterarder Church Community Centre, with benching taking place between 09.00 and 10.30, judging between 10.30 and 12.00 and the show opening to the public “around 12.30” – to quote the society. Class 24 is for “One pan Primula Asiatic species”, which is where to look for “fresh, healthy, floriferous plants in pristine condition” and is where to look for the very best examples of Primula denticulata. This would also be an excellent place to seek advice on the cultivation of these attractive plants.