CORNWALL'S GARDENS: PRIMROSE HEAVEN IN LAUNCESTON

PUBLISHED: 12:00 17 March 2015 | UPDATED: 13:07 30 August 2017

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Double primroses were hugely fashionable throughout the 1950s but frustratingly falling out of favour in the intervening years has led to many cultivars being lost

A major house restoration project begun near Launceston 10 years ago developed into a lifelong passion for primroses which led to the creation of a national collection. LOUSE DANKS discovers more...

There is something about a primrose that raises a smile. It may be the time of year that the sunny little flowers put in an appearance; just when we are craving longer days and warmer skies or perhaps it’s the delicate fragrance and perfect shade of yellow that lift our spring-time mood.

These charming little perennials have a place in our hedgerows, our gardens and our hearts but there is more to primroses than the endearing wild type, they have been bred and selected to develop different colours and forms to feed the appetite of gardeners and primrose-lovers for many years.

Caroline is on a mission to not only protect, preserve and nurture these double primroses but she is also always on the lookout for other existing collections or even individual specimens which may otherwise be lost to cultivation.

Double primroses were hugely fashionable throughout the 1950s but frustratingly falling out of favour in the intervening years has led to many cultivars being lost. Thankfully there is one woman who is passionate about the plight of the primrose and holds the Plant Heritage collection (National Council for the Conservation of Plants & Gardens) just outside Launceston.

Caroline Stone first came across The Glebe in North Petherwin in 2005 when it was in what Caroline describes as a dreadful state’ but that didn’t put her off buying, renovating and making it her home. I sort of felt sorry for it, that’s not a good reason to buy a house!’ she admits.

Work began on the two acres surrounding the house at the same time as it was being restored. A field - complete with grazing cattle - was slowly turned into a beautiful garden and home to Caroline’s Plant Heritage (NCCPG) collection which holds more than 80 varieties of double primrose.

The first thing I planted was the hornbeam avenue, I wanted the space to look less like a field and as my front door lines up with the church tower, it felt like a natural line to follow. Hornbeam does well here, it copes with the wet better than beech would and provides a necessary windbreak.’

A pretty box parterre in the form of a Celtic cross links the house to the hornbeam avenue. Caroline is in the process of planting a shrub walk and hopes to have it finished in 2015. It will be a beautiful feature in the garden.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed researching the specimens for this part of the garden, it’s been fun shopping for these plants!’ she says. It will also provide the perfect backdrop for the double primroses that will thrive in the partial shade provided here. The ground is incredibly wet, we have very high rainfall here, it is improving but many things have failed.’

Caroline recommends mound planting to counteract the water-logged earth where shrubs are planted on slightly raised piles’ of soil so that they aren’t struggling to grow in standing water; the addition of copious amounts of leaf mould and farmyard manure also helps.

Although the majority of Caroline’s double primrose collection is grown as an integral part of her garden, highlighting the value and versatility of these plants in a garden setting, she also has two shade tunnels where duplicates of her primroses are grown as an insurance policy. It is important that more than one colony of each type of primrose is nurtured and protected.

Double primroses need a specific set of conditions to thrive, They do very well in the West Country, Cumbria and Ireland due to high levels of rainfall in these areas.’ explains Caroline. Wet ground and shade are important. In dry years many specimens are lost. With neglect, primroses go backwards very quickly and this is part of the reason why many cultivars are lost.’

Double primroses are sterile (meaning they don’t reproduce by producing seed) so division is the only way to propagate these plants, you can do this at any time of year when there is no chance that the plants will dry out, spring and autumn are ideal.’

Seeing Caroline’s collection in its entirety displays the differences between these fascinating plants, not only the flower colours which can range from green and the palest yellow through to dark pink and deep purple but also the shape and texture of the leaves and the habit of the flower stem and of course whether the flower itself is single or double. But sadly many have been lost.

There are simply no photographs of many of the old varieties, just written descriptions. When trying to track down primroses I hear “I used to have…” and my heart sinks but it is amazing what can be found. There used to be three Plant Heritage collections which are now lost and I can’t find out where they’ve gone. Having said that it is exciting when I find one that I thought was lost.

One Cornish cultivar in particular, is proving elusive, possibly lost forever. Primula Tyrian Purple is a rich purple, large double-flowered primrose originally from Cornwall and thought to be extinct, I’d love to find it,’ says Caroline.

Once a popular sighting in British gardens, double primroses have slowly and silently been vanishing from the trade, victims of changing fashions and viral diseases,’ explains Sophie Leguil. conservation officer at Plant Heritage (National Council for the Conservation of Plants & Gardens). We were thrilled to welcome Caroline’s collection of double primroses into the National Plant Collection scheme, as preserving plants which are at risk of disappearing is at the core of Plant Heritage’s for the work. National Collections are, as we like to call them, “living libraries” dedicated to the conservation of groups of plants of historical, horticultural or scientific interest.

Caroline’s relentless efforts to track down old cultivars shows just how keen some plant enthusiasts are to preserve Britain’s horticultural heritage. Some of these rare varieties may still be growing in British back gardens, but this is the first attempt to gather them all in one single site where they can be admired, studied and propagated. Her research will ensure that those plants and the unique genetic material they contain are safeguarded for the future. It is a tribute to the great plant breeders who have spent years, often decades of their lives, crossing and selecting varieties with the best characteristics, whether it is interesting colours, unusual flower shape or resistance to diseases. Hopefully it will also mean that some of these varieties can be reintroduced into the horticultural trade and grown by many more generations of gardeners.’

Caroline is on a mission to not only protect, preserve and nurture these double primroses but she is also always on the lookout for other existing collections or even individual specimens which may otherwise be lost to cultivation. Caroline welcomes any leads, perhaps you know of someone who grows them, maybe you grow them yourself, Caroline would love to hear from anyone who thinks they might have information for her. This is a real-life botanical detective story!

Caroline Stone

The Glebe, North Petherwin

Launceston, PL15 8LR

01566 785706

glebegarden.co.uk/nccpg.com

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