Walking along a main pathway in UBC Botanical Garden’s David C. Lam Asian Garden, I was stopped in my tracks when I saw that the patch of bare ground that I had walked past all winter had turned into a small meadow of flowering Primula denticulata. It has been such a joy to watch different plants claim the limelight as the seasons change; I have been working at the Botanical Garden since last autumn, and I am sure there will be many more surprises for me as the spring gives way to summer.
Primula denticulata, or drumstick primula, is a widely-cultivated herbaceous perennial originating from the alpine regions of Asia. It was first collected for Western cultivation by John Forbes Royle, who was one of a number of 19th century collectors of the western and central Himalayas. It was made available to European gardeners in 1842 by one of the most important plant nurseries at the time, Veitch Nurseries. The Veitch family ran Veitch Nurseries over five generations, and were responsible for introducing hundreds of new plant species to Europe. In 1842, they won the Banksian Medal for their display of Primula denticulata exhibited at the London Horticultural Society. To learn more about this fascinating family, pick up the book Seeds of Fortune: A Gardening Dynasty by Sue Shephard. Also, to get a hint of what Primula denticulata looks like in a mass planting, see Merrill Jensen’s article Primula: the Joys of Spring and Beyond via Pacific Horticulture magazine (as an aside, Merrill Jensen is the manager of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum, holder of the Plant Collections Network collection of Primula; if you love primulas, Juneau is the place to visit!).
If you are interested in adding this species to your own garden, then you are likely in luck. Drumstick primula is one of the easiest primulas to grow, provided you have a patch of moist soil available for it, and are located in USDA zone 2-9. Heavy soils and dappled shade are of benefit; allowing your drumstick primula to dry out over the summer will likely kill it off. Primula denticulata can be sown from fresh seed from autumn to early spring, and is also easily propagated by division in summer or autumn. In the late spring, you should be rewarded for your efforts with clusters of rosettes bearing spherical umbels of purple, pink, or white flowers. These flowers are borne on sturdy stalks up to 30 cm tall.