Primula on my mind

Arboretum aims to get primrose certification this summer

There is a common flower Merrill Jensen is hoping will make a big impression in coming years at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum.


The genus primula, commonly known as the primrose, is a familiar spot of color during the otherwise drab spring months.

The temperate rain forest climate of Southeast is particularly suited to these plants and Jensen, who is not related to the property’s namesake, is looking to host the largest collection of primrose in North America.

“This is just the perfect climate for them, they don’t mind snotty weather,” Jensen, the arboretum’s manager, said. “Right now, we’re sitting at about 70.”

That’s 70 different species of primrose — some low-growing with neat clusters of flowers, others sending their blooms up a vertical stem for show, and some stating their presence with jaw-dropping color.

Jensen said the arboretum has recently sprouted a host of new primrose species this year and is hoping to get official designation this summer.

“The certification will hopefully happen in June,” he said.

That’s when an assessor from the North American Plant Collections Consortium will be in town to catalogue the arboretum’s collection. Soon, Jensen said, he hopes to collect more than 150 species, which he said would put him at the top of the list.

Until then, “we can unofficially claim that we have the largest collection in North America,” he said.

But numbers aside, Jensen said the primrose is a “pretty amazing family, botanically speaking.”

There’s close to 500 species of primrose that hail from all parts of the world, preferring cool, moist, alpine climates, Jensen said. He said only the rose family and the rhododendron family are larger.

Primrose are known for their early blooms. In fact, according to the American Primrose Society, the name primula, which means “dear little first one,” “probably derives from the fact that the common primrose (Primula vulgaris) blooms extremely early in the year, sometimes even in January.”

At the arboretum, Jensen said it’s no exception.

“We get early color,” he said. “But then there’s the summer blooming species. They fill (with color) throughout the year. I’ve got two species that bloom up until mid-September.”

For Jensen there are a few species of primrose that stand out above the rest; there’s one species called secundiflora and another called sikkimensis, which he said are two of his favorites.

The color of them is pretty crazy,” Jensen said. “(And there’s something about) the way they hold themselves.”

He said he is also fond of one species he’s dubbed “Max.”

Officially, the species name is maximowiczii, but feels the nickname is fitting for this primrose that sports scarlet red blooms.

“Most think primroses come in pink and lavender shades,” Jensen said. “(But Max) is this screeching scarlet. The petals fold back like a shooting start, they are cousins, so that makes sense.”

It wasn’t until moving to Alaska that Jensen said his interest in primroses piqued.

“It was just one of those things, I had in the back of my head,” he said. “I had dismissed primroses, I never really paid much attention to them down south; when I got up here, they just began popping up all over.”

It was Caroline Jensen’s favorite flower, he said. Caroline Jensen cultivated the gardens at the arboretum for many years before turning them over to the city after her death in 2006.

“I figured I better figure out what captivated her so much,” Jensen said. “But, I kind of got hooked. I’m turning into a primrose geek.”

Each spring he said he takes a trip south, to Washington or Oregon, to track down and bring back new species of primula. A lot, he said, are grown from seed.

Now, I’m making connections in Europe to get seed,” Jensen said. “I’m talking to folks in Norway and Scotland.”

Jensen said his collection of primroses will be on display all year, but the public is invited to check out the collection on Saturday, May 26, which is Alaska Public Gardens Day.

He said the free public event will feature a few words from Representative Beth Kerttula, free red lupine plants to the first 150 visitors and tours for all.


• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at


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