Decades of breeding lead to the new 'Kennedy Irish' line

PRIMROSES LOOK so fresh and appealing when they pop up for sale in late winter. But this year you don’t need to follow Shakespeare’s primrose path by planting the big, ubiquitous English type (P. vulgaris). While they may not be the pleasant route to self-destruction that Ophelia warned against in “Hamlet,” these primroses need such frequent dividing that at the least you’ll lose your interest, if not be sorry you ever planted them.

We now have a daintier, more appealing alternative. That’s because an Irish primrose breeder in County Kilkenny has resurrected vintage strains of primroses. Local wholesaler Skagit Gardens is growing two strains of the “Kennedy Irish Primroses,” which will be widely available here this spring.

These little perfections are new to market, but they come with an impressively long pedigree. The Irish have been breeding primroses, many from English stock, since the 19th century.

Joe Kennedy, a retired dentist in Ballycastle, Ireland, has spent 35 years breeding primroses. He started by collecting bits of old primroses from gardeners all over Ireland. For decades, he bred 2,000 new plants a year, of which he composted all but a hundred or so. Kennedy kept only the ones that displayed the darker leaves, hardiness, larger flowers and the distinction he was looking for. Kennedy bred his primroses for his own satisfaction; when he displayed them at the Alpine Garden Show in Dublin in 2005 they weren’t for sale. Which is probably one reason they caused such a stir.

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In 2006, Pat FitzGerald of FitzGerald Nurseries in Kilkenny began working with Kennedy to produce his primroses in big enough quantities to sell. FitzGerald hopes these Irish heritage primroses won’t be overshadowed by what he calls the “big, bold bedding types of primroses.” He thinks of his new line as the “hand-me-down type of primrose” that can be divided and spread as they were in times past.

FitzGerald has launched the “Kennedy Irish Primroses” with two yellow-eyed, dark-leafed varieties. ‘Innisfree’ has deep red flowers, while ‘Drumcliff’ is white flushed with violet. With age, its flowers turn more pink, depending on how much sunlight it gets. It’s been a challenge to breed pure yellow primroses; next spring ‘Claddagh,’ the first yellow, will debut. In the next few years, the new line will include the lilac-colored ‘Avondale’ that holds its flowers high above the foliage on stout stems, and the intriguing “hose-in-hose” types, where one flower is stacked inside another.

FitzGerald has loved primroses ever since he saw drifts of them growing on his family’s farm in County Kilkenny as a child. As you might expect, there are some tales involved. FitzGerald tells me that in Irish lore, primroses deter evil fairies. Scattering primroses by the front door kept witches away. But the history of the primrose is worldwide and even more ancient. The Norse goddess Freya treasured primroses as her sacred flower, and in the first century Pliny recommended primroses to his fellow Romans for paralysis and rheumatism.

Because both leaves and flowers are edible, primroses have been used for tea, wine, salad, cosmetics and medicine for centuries. And we can be sure that primrose bloom has brought the promise of spring to human hearts for all those many years.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.