My Favorite Flower

It's blooming by the hundreds in shade for me

If I were to be consigned to life on a remote island, what one flower would I bring along with me? That’s a bit like asking you which child is your favorite, or which piece of music you could listen to for all eternity.

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There are so many wonderful flowers, but some years ago I pondered the question and selected the peony ‘Festiva Maxima’. That’s a double white one with a spot of red in the middle (a drop of blood from a fairy princess?) and a fragrance so alluring, I wrote, that it could make one swoon. I acknowledged that Festiva Maxima does have a flaw: rain weighs down the blossoms, and sometimes the flowers break their stems – even if in a peony support cage.

Peony 'Festiva Maxima

But if you were to ask me today, I would say my favorite flower is the Candelabra or Japanese primrose, Primula japonica. I have a patch of them blooming in the shade of 3 old wild apples in moist, dark soil. I started with just a few plants, but they drop seeds and fill in spaces, overtaking what was once a meager, struggling lawn.

Primula japonica or Candelabra Primrose

I estimate that right now I have 200 to 250 square feet of primroses in full bloom; in a 3 foot by 3 foot square, I counted about 25 or 30 plants in bloom – so I have more than 500, perhaps even 750. All this in 10 or 15 years, and no work other than a once-a-year weeding of Jewel Weed, which also loves the conditions.

Each plant has a rosette of light green leaves and sends up a flower stalk 12 to 36 inches tall. Flowers ring the stalk in tiers, starting with one tier, and working up to 4 tiers of blossoms on the oldest plants as the season progresses. At each tier there are a dozen small blossoms - or up to 20 - pointing out like bugles. Each blossoms is about an inch across.

The colors vary as they hybridize. My favorites are a deep magenta. At the other end of the spectrum are the whites, though not pure white. Then there are pink, and dark pink ones. All are fabulous. Fragrance? Nothing much. But that would be like expecting your prize-winning poodle to also do the NYT crossword puzzle - without help.

The white candelabra primroses are nice, too.

The bloom period starts for me in late May and goes through most of June. A month or more with some blossoms. At any given moment a plant might have just one ring of flowers, or up to 3. As the flowers fade and die off, some develop a nice light blue.

Before the candelabra primroses bloomed came another nice one, albeit with no common name, Primula kisoana. This one, unlike the other, will grow in either moist or dry shade. It has lovely pink blossoms that pop up just 6 inches above the fuzzy leaves that are so dense that they keep weeds from appearing. The leaves are 5 inches or so wide with a scalloped edge and a light green color.

Primula kisoana is a great spreader - by root!

One of the greatest things about the Primula kisoana is that it spreads by root. But unlike mint or bee balm, this little beauty does not run over and out-compete other plants. It will politely meet up with the roots of another, and move to the left or right instead of grasping for every inch of soil. Where I have it in dry shade it gets some morning sun, but no afternoon sun.

Another nice plant I have blooming now, and which can act as a ground cover, is bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum). To avoid confusion I should explain that the bright red or white geraniums popular in window boxes are not geraniums at all, but are in a genus (scientific grouping) known as Pelargonium. Geranium is a genus of hardy perennials.

Bigroot geranium is a nice plant for dry shade

The bigroot geranium thrives where other perennials may survive, but few love: dry shade with competition from tree roots. Maples and locust are notorious for sucking everything out of the soil, yet I have planted the bigroot geranium under those trees, and had them thrive. Will they grow under hemlocks or pines? No, that’s asking too much.

Bigroot geranium comes in at least three colors: white, pink and dark pink. The leaves are about a foot tall, with the flower stems standing above them at about 20 inches. Their leaves form a dense mass of foliage that most weeds find inhospitable.

This clump in the Lebanon, NH mall is in deep shade, with intense root competition from locust trees

On another note, many readers have been complaining that their tomatoes are yellow-leafed and miserable looking. Not to worry. Tomatoes need sunshine, and early June was, for most of us, rainy and cold. They will recover soon.

Plants suck up moisture that contains the minerals they need – but only if the moisture is required to replace water that the plants have given off. They don’t give off much water vapor when it’s chilly and wet, so they can get nitrogen-starved. With heat and sunshine they will recover.

I have set up Adirondack chairs near my primroses and spend at least some time there every day. And even though I’ll never have to pick just one flower to grow, these primroses are a real delight to me.

So what's your favorite flower? Come on, everyone, it'll just take a moment to add your idea in the comments section below. I'd love to hear from you! Maybe you can get me to try something new. 

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