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Nature talk: Pleasing primulas

December 19, 2010

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Yes gardeners it’s that time of year again! The winter months, much appreciated as they are in the cities and plains but not so popular in upland areas of the country, are the one and only time of year that you can really enjoy having perky primulas dotted around your garden.

These largely temperate climate plants — nurseries are packed to the gunnels with them right now — make ideal pot plants both inside and outside the home, are great in containers, tucked neatly into rockeries and other odd corners and, of course, are ideal edging plants for mixed borders of flowers, fruit, herbs and vegetables alike.

Their jewel bright colours cheer up even the dullest of days and, if you have garden lighting, glow enticingly after dark when they attract those varied and fascinating night flyers called hawk moths. Some species of hawk moth flit around during daylight and resemble miniature humming birds wearing very short, ruffled, ballerinas tutus but it is the often huge night flyers amongst them which really attract attention and they absolutely adore primulas!

The most commonly available species is Primula auricula which is a compact, low growing plant with elongated leaves, arranged in a crown and from which the gorgeous, white or yellow-eyed flowers, in shades of blue, yellow, red, white, pink and purple, protrude in amazing numbers if you are lucky.

Primulas are perennial plants, meaning that they come up year after year, in temperate climates but are cultivated as seasonal ones throughout most of Pakistan, the exception being in the hills where they flourish and where one attractive species, Primula denticulate, is an indigenous wild flower whose numbers, sadly, are diminishing due to loss of forest habitat.

The auricula varieties, of which there are numerous hybrids bred for special characteristics, can be propagated from seed but, as this tends to be a somewhat tricky business temperature wise, it is far easier to splash out some hard earned cash on nursery bred plants as soon as they become available. Don’t buy them towards the end of the season during late spring, you will hardly get to know them before temperatures rise and they suddenly burn to a crisp and are gone with absolutely no intention of resurrecting themselves later in the year.

Sensible nursery people actually propagate them from July onwards, undercover, in the cool of the hills and transport them down to the plains for sale during late autumn. Seeds tend to be on the expensive side; very few per packet and germination rates not all that high and this renders plants more expensive than other seasonal favourites such as pansies, petunias, phlox, etc. but I would still recommend that you try a few, carefully selected plants as they will reward you with tons of colourful pleasure.

They are generally offered for sale in very small pots, most pots having a single plant but sometimes, if you search hard enough, you can spot a pot containing two, three or even more. They will, undoubtedly, require transplanting into larger pots as soon as you get them home and one plant per seven-inch pot is ideal unless, that is, you want to arrange a few in a hanging basket, decorative container or plant them out directly in the soil.

They prefer to have their roots in well drained, sandy loam with lots of organic matter, either compost or old, well-rotted, organic manure worked in and will last longer if provided with a partially shaded position. They loathe full sun and refuse to flower in too much shade. A spot with early morning sunshine, say through until 10am or somewhere they can enjoy the cooler sun of late afternoon into evening is perfect. Watering is important but must not be overdone plus, water the soil around the plant not the plant itself as both leaves and flowers quickly spoil when wet.

Slugs can be problematic but this is easily taken care of if you place a few slug traps around: sink an empty tin or yoghurt pot into the soil to within a inch of its brim, half fill it with warm water, a couple of teaspoons of sugar and sprinkle a little bakers yeast on top.

The slugs will home in on this, climb up in pursuit of the enticing yeasty aroma, fall in and drown. If, however, your primulas are in pots rather than in the ground, then hide a few aluminium foil trays, each one covered with thin slices of cucumber, behind the pots as, apparently but I still haven’t tried it, the cucumber reacts with the aluminium to release some kind of high pitched noise, inaudible to humans, which drives slugs out of the area in no time at all. The cucumber slices will need replacing a couple of times a week but, if it works, it’s well worth it. Other bugs tend to leave primulas alone.One last thing: some people have an allergic reaction to primula leaves therefore, to be on the safe side, always wear gloves when handling them.

Please continue sending your gardening queries to zahrahnasir@hotmail.com. Remember to include your location. Answers to selected questions will appear in a future issue of the magazine. This takes time. The writer will not respond directly by e-mail. E-mails with attachments will not be opened. Commercial queries will not be entertained. Please note: The writer’s garden is not open to public.