Colorful 'little people'

Getting to know the primroses of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum

A year after the Jensen-Olson Arboretum earned a designation from the North American Plant Collections Consortium as the largest primrose collection in North America, things continue to sprout at Juneau’s local public garden.


Arboretum Manager Merrill Jensen said they’ve increased their collection since they were officially certified by the NAPCC last fall.

“We’ve got about 139 in the ground — species and hybrids,” Jensen said. “And then I’ve got another 50 being started from seed this year. And, I have about 20 that I will be putting in the ground this year, that were started from seed last year. So we’ll be at more than 200 species and cultivars by this time next year.”

A cultivar is a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding.

Jensen’s varieties come from all over the world. Many from Asia, he said, some from Britain, others from places like Ireland. He’s reached out to experts far and wide, some who make it their life’s work to categorize all the species and cultivars of primula on the planet. He’s signed up for seed trades and has cultivated relationships with growers thousands of miles away. The primula being the thing that binds.

Jensen admits he’s caught the primrose bug, and lightly calls himself a primrose “junkie.” Likely, it’s that same bug that figuratively bit Caroline Jensen decades ago when she sowed the first seeds of the Pacific giant.

“That’s what she started with,” Jensen said.

Jensen admitted he used to write off primroses when he lived down south, as just a standard variety carried in box stores. But, when he arrived in Juneau and saw the color emerging at the arboretum, he was not only blown away, he was also hooked.

“I got out (Caroline’s) reference books,” he said. “And I was like, ok, this is fun.”

Caroline Jensen had begun cataloging her collection in the early 70s, Jensen said, and continued into the 80s. He said he’s used her photographs to identify much of what was already in the ground, partly out of curiosity, mostly on the recommendation of the NAPCC.

Most recently, he returned from the American Primrose Society’s National Convention.

“It’s a really fun family to play with, especially here, since they do so well,” he said.

In early May, we tip-toed around the garden, amid the deep greens and tight flower buds just emerging from the dark earth, Jensen introduced me to some of his earliest flowering varieties.

We stopped first by a sun-kissed bed, with a host of drumstick primroses — or denticulata — reaching skyward, the slender stems topped with clusters of purple pom-poms. Amid the purple, were also the Kenlough beauties, with flowers that featured little white spokes, an Irish cultivar, Jensen said. Then, there were the fuschia and yellow blooms of the Carline Jensen’s Pacific giant, identifiable by their star-shaped center.

Jensen continued on.

“Here’s a Julie hybrid,” he said. “It’s probably Wanda, but I don’t know for sure. These are some I segregated out last year, the bloom is a bronzy, creamy yellow, but I haven’t been able to put a name to it.”

He moved on and pointed to a yellow cluster of familiar flowers.

“This is a Julie. They spread like crazy and are pretty bulletproof,” Jensen said.

The yellow petals were the color of butter, and just as smooth. The center, a richer hue, like that of a gold nugget, freshly cleaned. This variety is a familiar sight in many Juneau gardens and a common start found at the annual Plant Sale.

Around the garden we went, moving from bed to bed, squatting close to the sprouts, examining the blooms and labels like kids peering at creatures in a tidepool.

There were the Reubens (like the sandwhich) with their dark, reddish blooms. One “little person” Jensen said was new from last year — the Jean Renshaw, another Julie hybrid. There were the florindas, which Jensen said “get quite tall and take on an orange shade, like a mango.” We moved on to the Pacific rim variety, “mostly from the Asian side, the Kamchatka area.”

As we walked, Jensen talked about the origins of many primroses, how many live in the Himalayas, how they are sprinkled across alpine areas and how they like moist soil that doesn’t stay water logged.

“The whole family just likes wet ground,” he said.

A fitting Juneau resident, indeed.

And on and on we went, past the “cool Asians, that will be blooming later,” with leaves that look completely different than other primroses. Past the secundiflora who sport blooms featuring black and white stripes. On past the one Caroline Jensen pulled from the Barnhaven Historical Nursery, which was once based out of the Portland, Ore. area, but is now based in France. Then past the primula elatior, or oxlip for short, a common European wildflower, Jensen said.

“It’s like Dorothy,” he said of the yellow clump of recognizable flowers. “It was probably a pollen parent to create Dorothy. This is the wild form.”

Despite the plethora of “little people” popping up all over the grounds of the city-run arboretum, Jensen said the real show is in late May.

By then, he said, things would be popping. And, it’s just in time for Alaska Public Gardens Day which will be held on Saturday, May 25.

Jensen said the garden, located just past Mile 23 on Glacier Highway, will be open during its regular hours, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at no charge.


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