Primroses bloom

In the Garden

Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener


     On a recent night, as I stepped outside into the garden, my nose was greeted with a sweet scent.  I did not need to see the blooms to know that the evening primroses are in bloom.  These primroses bloom at night to attract the moths that are their preferred pollinators. 

     Primroses are not roses, and many are not what I would consider prim.  Actually, the common name of primrose may be applied to plants in either of two genera.  There are more than 400 species in the genus Primula.  Additionally, there are numerous hybrids and cultivars.  The Primulas tend to be short, with few species topping a foot tall.  Many have flowers that barely push above the basal rosette of foliage.  Primulas may be annual, biennials or short-lived perennials.  Most bloom in the early spring, but I once had an English primrose that set blooms every month except January.  The bloom colors include white, yellow, orange, red, burgundy and purple, as well as many different variegations.  Most of the blooms are only an inch or so in diameter.

     However, that sweet scent that has been coming to me at night comes from a different type of primrose altogether.  The genus Oenethera is related to Primula, but the two cousins are very different.  The flowers on Oenetheras have a less-diverse palette, occurring in only white, yellow and pink.  There are about 150 species in the genus.  This genus includes the popular Missouri primroses, whose papery yellow or pink two-inch flowers are among the largest primrose blooms.  They tend to grow almost as vines and are often used as ground covers, often on banks.  They are quite striking when in bloom.

     There are actually several species known collectively as evening primroses.  Most of the blooms in the group are yellow and are an inch or less in diameter.  Plant heights range from two feet to over eight feet.  Some within the genus have some interesting kinetic properties.  The so-called spinning primroses actually do spin as the blooms open in the evening.  If you can manage to be present when the blooms open, it is quite an entertaining sight.  Since a plant often has dozens of blooms, all of which will open within a few seconds of the others, the plant may appear to be dancing.  The show does not last long, but you will not forget the first time you see it.

     The spinning may not last long, but the scent will permeate the night.  The honey-sweet scent serves to attract the moths that will pollinate the flowers.  The flowers will remain open, often not closing until about noon, and the scent continues to emit from the flowers.

     Throughout history, Oenetheras have been used for food and medicine.  The medicinal uses employ different parts of the plant for different conditions.  The plant has been used in teas or infusions, as an ingredient in topical creams and even ground and made into pills.  The leaves of young plants may be mixed with other salad greens for a tasty meal.  While there is no research that confirms the plant has medicinal value, I can attest that the greens are good to eat.

     Like many wildflowers, Oenethera will self-seed profusely and that has earned it a reputation as a weed.  I say that I love weeds that smell so wonderful.  They may be aggressive, but since they are native, they are not invasive.  If plants pop up in unwanted spaces, the young plants are easy to pull out in the spring.  You may also limit the spread by cutting back plants as soon as they have finished flowering.  They make a wonderful addition to meadows and prairie gardens and the night-time scent is a real treat.


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