The old-fashioned primrose is as beloved today as it ever was. Primroses (Primula) became popular in nineteenth century Britain, when city dwellers discovered that the garden auricula (a primrose with smooth, ear-shaped leaves and delicate-looking flowers) was resilient enough to withstand the soot and grit of urban pollution. Queen Victoria, who was especially fond of the humble primrose, sent posies of them to fellow primrose lover Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
Primroses are one of the first flowers to bloom in spring, thus their genus name Primula, from primus, the Latin word for ''first.'' The common name, primrose, comes from the Italian prima rosa, which means ''first rose.'' The genus Primula encompasses about five hundred species. Breeding primroses, especially the auricula, became a popular pastime in the Victorian era, and hybrid primroses now come in almost every imaginable hue.
Primroses give shady springtime gardens a jolt of color. The native habitats of the primrose are many: the English meadow, the Swiss Alps, the Rocky Mountains, and the Himalayas, to name a few. Primroses will grow along borders as well as in rock gardens or beside stretches of water. And in general, they grow best in zones where it doesn't get too hot in the summer. But every species varies slightly in terms of the growing conditions it needs.
Today, Martha plants two varieties beneath her linden trees: the hairy-leafed true primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the drumstick primrose (Primula denticulata). She saves a third, an auricula, for an indoor pot. The drumstick primrose has smooth leaves with sawtooth edges and a long stalk topped with a cluster of bluish violet flowers that form a small globe. True primrose, the most common variety of primrose, is also the least expensive.
With a spade, Martha digs a hole deep enough so that when she inserts the plant, the base of its leaves will meet the surface of the soil. She loosens the roots on the root ball of the plant just a bit, and gently sets the primrose into the hole. She then returns soil to the hole and pats it down firmly. She gives her newly planted primroses plenty of water.