Wednesday, April 8, 2009
From Russia with love
Primula juliae 'Wanda' (above)
We tend to think of plant hunters as intrepid explorer-types who fought natives, deadly insects and tropical diseases to hunt down and bring back exotic species from inaccessible rain forests or remote mountains to satisfy the demands of the lords and gentry for plants to impress their friends … and rivals.
Sure, a few plant hunters were in that mould, but the majority were just enthusiastic botanists who were fascinated by the challenge of finding plants that had not previously been found and described. If they proved worthy of cultivation as garden plants then that, for them, was a big bonus.
With a few additional twists and turns, that’s really the story of Primula juliae ‘Wanda’, a plant we have in great abundance in our garden and one which we love for its showiness in the spring, and its ability to spread and cover some pretty dank and unpromising corners of the garden.
The story starts towards the end of the 19th century with a young Russian girl, Julia Mlokossjewicz, who used to accompany her Polish-born father on plant hunting trips to remote parts of the Caucasus Mountains in south west Russia. She continued to be an avid naturalist into adulthood and, on 20 April 1900, while exploring these slopes of her homeland, she discovered a tiny primula growing with moist mosses alongside a mountain stream.
This charming little species was named Primula juliae in honour of its discoverer, but it wasn’t until 1911 that seeds from this new species were sent to Oxford. The following year P. juliae, was brought to the attention of gardeners when a plant was exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society show and received an Award of Merit.
What made Primula juliae of such interest to gardeners, apart from its charming little purple-pink flowers, was actually the bit you can’t see – its root system. It’s unique among primulas in having a root system with stolons – these are thickened roots that grow out from the parent plant just under the surface and form a branched network with at intervals along the length of the stolons, buds that produce new shoots and flowers. So P. juliae can quickly spread to form a dense mat covered with a sheet of flowers – very different from the primulas we are familiar with that form tight rosettes of leaves with flowers growing out from the centre. Expansion of these plants to form clumps is relatively slow.
It was pretty soon discovered that the pollen of Primula juliae was compatible with other primulas and the plant breeders got to work. The result was a whole range of hybrids the most well-known of which is ‘Wanda’. This came from a cross between P. juliae and a red form of our native primrose Primula vulgaris.
Like all the most successful hybrids it has the best of both parents …. and a bit more besides.
It has the vigour, larger leaves and flowers of the primrose, it has the spreading root system of P. juliae and the same masses of flowers, but they are more intensely coloured. And, as a plant that came from the mossy sides of a stream in the Caucasus mountains, it loves damp moist conditions – something we have in abundance here in the West of Ireland.
So, it's a plant that may have travelled a long way from home and taken a hundred years to get here, but now it looks as much at home here as any native.