Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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Plantings for you by the letter ‘P’

At this time of the year, we used to be obsessed with the letter “P”. In the bedding plant industry, autumn was a time for four main winter-flowering plants – pansies, polyanthus, [Iceland] poppies, and primulas. These four plants provided the backbone of most winter bedding schemes.

Times have changed and three of the above have lost a lot of their appeal, although pansies have remained very much in vogue, the smaller flowered varieties being the most popular.

Although we grow pansies for winter, I still retain a love of the multitude of members of the vast primula family, ranging from the most commonplace, to the most exquisite.

Perhaps the commonest of all primula is the ubiquitous bedding species known as Primula malacoides. It is a petite plant, given the common name of ‘Fairy primula’ from its dainty growth and delicate whorls of flower. The colour is variable – the most common forms are a pinkish-lavender, but there are darker almost-red forms, as well as a very pretty white flowered variety.

The leaves are for a small rosette and will grow up to 30cm across in the rich compost-laded soil they prefer. In our climate, they will perform well in most conditions, including full sun, but they will also cope readily with shadier areas so long as they do not dry out too much.

They are favourites with municipal gardeners, partly because they look spectacular when they are planted out en masse. Perhaps the nicest beds I have seen have been in the Lady Norwood rose gardens in the Wellington Botanic Gardens. Rose gardens are not the most appealing of places in winter, but the bright beds of malacoides livened up the place.

We have them growing in a few places in the garden, mainly from self-seeded plants. One bunch in a front garden is mainly white, while others in the back garden are pink. However, there is a caveat about these plants – some people are allergic to the leaves, as we found when some of the staff would get rashes after pricking these out. Fortunately, there were staff who were allergy-free.

Their cousins, the polyanthus, have been part of my gardening life for as long as I can remember. My mother used to nurse some precious plants through the dry summer months, so their highly scented yellow flowers could provide colour and fragrance in spring.

Hers were mainly smaller-flowered types, but I soon became familiar with the large Pacific Giant strain in a mix of clear colours. The flowers were at least twice the size of the older strains, and they were very popular, despite having a restricted colour range.

Other breeders got to work on combining the best of the old and new, including Noel McMillan who lived near Cambridge. His ‘Waikato’ strain was very popular, with a huge variety of different colours. I recall Park Street being planted out with these beauties, with the occasional, particularly charming plant being stolen.

We grew these for the potted trade, as the seed was too expensive to sell them in punnets. Along with the other strains we grew, we had tens of thousands of these plants in flower-in-shade houses and glasshouses. Our young children would help sort them each Sunday into mixed trays ready for the Monday run to the garden centres. One of my sons confessed last year that it was the first time in over twenty years he had been able to look at a polyanthus, much less plant one in his garden.

I was interested in growing some more unusual ones, so I grew a couple of batches of gold-laced varieties. These have much smaller flowers, generally nearly black, and each with a thin rim of gold around the edge of each petal. They were attractive and seldom seen. One friend saw one in a Wellington shop, and knowing I liked unusual polyanthus, she bought it and gave it to me as a present. I never told her I had grown it!

At about the same time, we grew a batch of Primula vialii. This unusual species has a rosette of light green leaves, which are almost completely deciduous. In spring they pop up straight-stemmed flower stalks with poker-shaped flower heads. The buds are red, while the flowers are lilac-pink – the combination is startling.

I was also very keen on breeding double auriculas. These are cousins to a polyanthus, with much more succulent leaves, greyish and often touched with a mealy bloom, earning them one of their common names – Dusty Millers.

They are hybrids between a number of different species and come in a wide range of colours. They are tough and hardy plants, without being quite so showy as polyanthus. The double forms come in a variety of colours and shapes. Some are loose doubles, but others are very formal in their shape, and many have a delicious subtle scent. The double forms are seldom seen, but most garden centres will have some single auriculas in spring. They are worth looking out for.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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