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(HOST) Commentator Henry Homeyer says that primroses are the unsung heroes of the garden, providing bright colors that will grow in the shade as alternatives to the standard shade plants such as hostas and ferns.

(HOMEYER) Early each spring grocery stores bring out pots of cheerful primroses in full bloom. Some blossoms are yellow, some magenta, some blue. After the blooming is over, gardeners plant them outside and give them scarcely a thought. The following spring many fail to appear, and so, perhaps, primroses have gath- ered a reputation for being difficult. They are not. But they do insist on certain growing conditions.

Most primroses like a shady or partially shady site and consis- tently moist soil. Morning sun or filtered afternoon sun is fine, but most would bake in hot afternoon sun. I grow primroses in dappled shade under old apple trees, where they get just a little direct sun. Their soil is dark and rich from the accumulation of years of de- composing leaves and rotten apples.

Primroses are a bit promiscuous, which is to say, they hybridize easily. One species will pollinate another’s flowers, so new named varieties are constantly appearing. The Juliana hybrids are some of the best, bearing a profusion of blossoms in a wide variety of colors. The best primroses are propagated by division as hybrid seeds do not necessarily breed true.

My favorite primrose, Primula kisoana, has no common name. Its blossoms are a bright pink (fading to light pink), and for me – though not everyone – it spreads like crazy. It spreads by root and by seed. Clusters of cheerful inch-wide blossoms stand on stems four to 12 inches tall. Their slightly fuzzy green leaves look good all summer, and this primrose grows for me in both wet and dry locations.

Drumstick primroses bloom earlier than most. They’re easy to grow and come in a variety of colors, including pink, bluish-purple and white. Their blossoms appear as globes of florets on bare stalks, shaped a bit like big dandelion seed-heads. The blossoms are two inches across and stand six inches or more above their leaves.

The bright yellow British “cowslip” is really a wild primrose. Their blossoms don’t open up in a wide smile like some, but stay in tight yellow blossoms with green sepals surrounding them. Right now, my Candelabra primroses are in their glory, with flower stems up to 24 inches tall, clusters of blossoms – from white to pink to magenta – at various heights along the stem.

Primroses are for sale at most nurseries, but if you really want to start a nice patch, you should get seeds and plant your own. I had great luck last summer starting Candelabra primroses from seed. If you join the American Primrose Society, you can get seeds from other members. However you do it, this is a good time to get start- ed down the primrose path.

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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