Tiny, Influential Primula juliae
by Judith Sellers
When we look at the influence P. juliae has had on primrose growing and breeding since its relatively recent introduction, it becomes apparent that this tiny member of the Primula (Vernales) section has been very important in creating many of the best garden plants we have today.
Most sources indicate that P.juliae was discovered by Julia Mloskossjewicz (or Mloskosewitsch), the daughter of the Polish aristocrat, botanist, and forest inspector Ludwig Mloskossjewicz, near wet stones eighty miles east northeast of Tiflis in the Eastern Caucasus. Records vary as to whether it was April 20 of 1900 or 1901, but agree that the first documented showing of the plant in England was by a Mr. Baker at the RHS on April 2, 1912 and that the plant was given an Award of Merit. Mr. Baker probably received his plant or seeds from the Oxford Botanical Garden where Prof. Kustensow of the Dorpat Botanic Garden, who first described and named the plant, had sent plants and/or seeds in August of 1911.
The bright magenta color, relative ease of culture and increase, hardiness and distinctive appearance of P. juliae attracted the attention of amateur and professional gardeners. P. juliae became the most commonly grown species of Primula. British and other European hybridizers were soon busy crossing the miniature plant with many of the other species in the Primula section, and after WW II, American enthusiasts were doing the same.
The British firm of Waterer Sons and Crispin Ltd. won an Award of Merit for a cross named ‘Crispin’ in 1916. In 1918 the Austrian head gardener at the Pruhonice Castle crossed P. juliae with P. vulgaris coerulea and raised hybrids he called P.x pruhoniciana. A hybrid cross between P. juliae and a crimson form of P. acaulis resulted in ‘Wanda,’ which won the Award of Merit in 1919, and was described as ‘the most striking of the many hybrids so far exhibited’. Doretta Klaber said ‘Wanda’ is ‘bright and glowing, like a glass of wine seen against the light.’ The vigor, floriferous habit, rapidity of increase, tolerance of sunlight, and attractive color of ‘Wanda’ led to its extensive use as a breeder’s plant, and eventually to an entire strain of plants now called ‘Wanda Hybrids.’ In 1920, George Arends in Germany bred P. juliae with other Primulas to achieve an extensive color range of plants he named P.x helenae, after his wife, Helen. Even some of the Garryard primroses may have P. juliae in their backgrounds. Florence Bellis used P. juliae only as a pollen parent, as her plants were grown in too much shade to set seed pods, but some valuable crosses such as ‘Fireflies’ resulted.
By 1958, Roy Genders described over 90 named garden plants claiming P. juliae ‘blood’, and wrote that there were over 200 kinds grown in gardens at that time, but that many of those did not retain the true small form of the species. Many of those plants have been lost over time, but in recent years, many more have been bred and registered as having P. juliae as a grandparent or great grandparent.
The hybrid crosses from P. juliae are known by various names depending on where the original crosses were made. ‘Wanda’ was bred in Britain. P.x pruhoniciana came from an Austrian Botanic garden and P.x helenae from Germany. Plants with P. juliae in their backgrounds are often called ‘Wanda Hybrids’, ‘Julianas’, ‘Julian Hybrids’, or ‘Julie crosses’.
A French botanist described P. juliae as ‘petite, vivacious, rustic, with a rampant rhizome.’ The charm of the species lies in its exceedingly neat habit, with finely toothed waxy heart or kidney shaped leaves of only one half to three quarters of an inch long, springing not from rosettes, but from the creeping rootstocks. The foliage has a reddish bronze tint and spreads into a flatish mat when grown well. The rosy purple flowers are borne singly on one-inch stems, and are darker and redder near the bright yellow five pointed star eye. Each petal is heart shaped with a notch at the outer edge.
P. Juliae is now listed as rare or endangered in most of the area where it grew wild, and is protected by law in Georgia and the Northern Caucasus. This species grows well in pots but flowers better when grown in damp mossy ground or on wet rocky slopes. In shade, there will be more foliage, and in sun, more blossom. A cool moist root run (but not dank soggy soil) is essential if the plant is to make enough root growth in the heat of summer to remain anchored solidly during freeze-thaw cycles of winter. A good mulch, half to one inch deep, of sandy leaf mold or grit in spring and again in fall will conserve water and protect the roots in winter. The plants should be monitored for vine weevils among the roots in areas affected by that pest. P. juliae suffers if crowded by larger plants but needs only minimal, if any, fertilizing if it is to remain tiny. Division is best done in spring after flowering if more plants are desired or if the roots have become crowded.
P. juliae is not the showiest flower but it is one of the most valuable species of Primula. The plants look well in drifts along a border, with other primroses by a cool doorstep, or in the rock garden under high shade with snowdrops, scillas, crocuses and small daffodils, as it blooms in early spring. This little plant has added vitality and color to many a garden, and we thank Prof. Kustensow for Latinizing the discoverer’s first name, as we would be unlikely to remember to ask for P. mloskossjewiczii from any seed list or nursery.
Quarterly of the American Primrose Society. Vol 6, #2: Vol 23, #1
Genders, Roy. Primroses. The Garden Book Club, London, 1959
Klaber, Doretta. Primroses and Spring. M. Barrows & Co. Inc. New York, 1966
Ward, Peter. Primroses and Polyanthus. B.T. Batsford Ltd. London, 1997