Primula marginata ‘Herb Dickson’

P marginata Herb Dickson

P. marginata ‘Herb Dickson’

I first became interested in alpine plants in the spring of 1979 while hiking in the north cascades, seeing first hand some of our native alpines in glorious bloom.  I had just moved to the Pacific Northwest from an apartment in Washington, D.C.  A few house plants were my only previous horticultural experience.

Soon after moving I joined some local plant the groups, the northwest chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS) and the local chapter of the American Primrose society. It was at one group meeting where I must have first heard about Herb Dickson’s enormous collection of Lewisias and Primula about 85 miles south of Seattle at his Chehalis Rare Plant Nursery.

A few years later that I found some time to make the trip down to Chehalis.  Herb was recently widowed, living alone, but graciously invited me into his home and showed me around the nursery.  I left with a few plants, mostly Lewisias.  I don’t recall leaving with any plant bearing Herb’s name — and certainly not a Primula marginata.  Last spring, more than 30 years later, I stumbled on the cultivar bearing his name while browsing the online catalog of the Sequim Rare Plants nursery.

P marginata Herb Dickson2

P. marginata ‘Herb Dickson’  blooming in January 2013

The plant pictured above surprised me by blooming early this January.  It was mistakenly left outside in its pot (rather than under cover from excessive wet) most of October, November and December — months which were very wet and mild.  The plant was apparently fooled into thinking spring was at hand.  When I discovered it blooming I immediately provided shelter from the wet conditions.  Overnight temperatures dropped in mid January, so some of the leaves are still quite messy from the cold and wet, but the blooms continue.  For more info on P. marginata history and culture see this post.

Update March 2013

The same plant, with healthier looking leaves and still blooming, more than two months later.

p-marginata-herb dickson2

Primula marginata ‘Herb Dickson’

Primula marginata

Is this the species that started it all?  Can the popularity of those ubiquitous supermarket and convenience store primulas that show up in early spring be traced to this amazing little alpine?

Primula marginata

Primula marginata was first described in cultivation sometime between 1777 and 1781. The species is primarily found on shady limestone cliffs in the Maritime and Cottian Alps, which are located on the border between Italy and France.

P. marginata is prized both for the beauty of its serrated and powdered leaves (the powder is properly called farina), and its blue flowers.

 P. marginata ‘Pritchard’s Variety’

The plant, both in the wild and in cultivation, is highly variable in shades of the blue flowers and also the size of the jagged teeth at the leaf edges.  Many hybrid cultivars exist.

P marginata 'Herb Dickson'

P. marginata ‘Herb Dickson’

Primula marginata belongs to a subsection of  the Primula genus called Auricula. The  auricula species was known to central Europeans possibly four or even five centuries ago as the “yellow bears ear.”  It’s the wild plant that gave rise to the garden and show auriculas prized by the British.

P. auricula ‘Purple Rain’

Garden auriculas do not have the serrated “toothed” leaves that P. marginata displays, but clearly the two species hybridize readily.  The flowers of Primula marginata cultivar ‘Mauve Mist’ shown below are probably the result of a cross between P. marginata and an auricula primrose cultivar.

P. marginata ‘Mauve Mist’

According to John Richards, in his seminal work, Primula  (published by Timber Press, Portland, Oregon,1993), P. auricula has been a popular garden plant for at least five centuries, and indeed was one of the first decorative plants to be cultivated in Europe. The social life of the Lancashire mill towns in the Victorian era often revolved around  Auricula societies and their shows, where considerable sums of money could be won for a prized plant!