Primula denticulata (drumstick primula)
Primula denticulata Sm.
drumstick primula, tooth-leaved primula, purple Nepal cowslip
Not Evaluated according to IUCN Red List criteria.
Open, wet places.
Many species of Primula, including P. denticulata, contain primin and other quinoid compounds which are contact allergens.
About this species
Most of the primulas from China and the Himalaya now in cultivation were introduced in the 20th century, but a few found their way into European gardens in the 19th century, particularly species from the western and central Himalaya. Early collectors in this area included Joseph Hooker, Nathaniel Wallich and John Forbes Royle, who introduced seed of the drumstick primula, Primula denticulata.
James Edward Smith, a friend of Sir Joseph Banks and founder of the Linnean Society, described P. denticulata in the second volume of Exotic Botany, from a drawing made in India. Smith reports that this species was collected by Dr Francis Buchanan, ‘in moist parts of the hills about Chitlong’, in Nepal, where they flowered from February to April. It was some years later that seed of P. denticulata reached Britain, and was introduced into cultivation in 1842 by Messrs Veitch, who ran one of the largest plant nurseries in Europe.
The drumstick primula is the most common Himalayan Primula and by far the most widely cultivated of the species of primula grouped in section Denticulata.
Geography and distribution
Widely distributed from eastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, across the Himalaya to Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou in China.
Primula denticulata is a perennial, deciduous, clump-forming plant with compact heads of many flowers, and overwinters as large, above-ground buds with thick roots.
The winter buds of P. denticulata are surrounded by large, leathery scales. In spring and summer, the oblong, wrinkly leaves can grow up to 30 cm long and have a toothed margin. The spherical flower head is held on a stem up to 30 cm tall, is up to 8 cm across and composed of usually stalkless flowers. Flower colour varies from deep purple or blue, to pink or white but the normal colour is pinkish-purple or lilac, with a yellowish eye.
Primula denticulata subsp. sinodenticulata, from north Burma and west China, is a robust plant with an elongated flower stem, up to six times the length of its leaves.
The closely related species P. cachemeriana (syn. P. denticulata var. cachemeriana), from Kashmir, is sometimes seen in cultivation but it is not widely grown. It differs from P. denticulata in its pointed, yellow-mealy (with a powdery coating) resting bud and the narrow, very mealy leaves, which remain smooth until after the plant has flowered. Some authors classify this as a form of P. denticulata but Professor John Richards, a former chairman of the Alpine Garden Society and author of the monograph Primula, retains it as a separate species.
Primula denticulata is cultivated as an ornamental.
Primula denticulata is an easy, hardy garden plant that can be grown in a variety of soils but will not tolerate drying out in the summer months. It thrives in heavy garden soil in a border and is ideal for small gardens. It also does well in dappled shade.
It is a clump-forming species that can be propagated by division in summer or autumn. Fresh seed can be sown from autumn to early spring. Root cuttings can also be taken when the plant is dormant.
This species at Kew
Primula denticulata can be seen in the in the Rock Garden at Kew and at Wakehurst. Other species of primula found in the Rock Garden and the Alpine House at Kew include Primula beesiana, Primula bulleyana, Primula verticillata and Primula vialii.
Spirit-preserved, as well as pressed and dried specimens of Primula denticulata are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers, by appointment. The details, including an image, of one of these can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.
Beentje, H. (2010). The Kew Plant Glossary. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Frohne, D. & Pfänder, H.J. (2005). Poisonous Plants: A Handbook for Doctors, Pharmacists, Toxicologists, Biologists and Veterinarians. Second Edition (translated from German Fifth Edition, 2004). Manson, London.
Hooker, W.J. (1842). Primula denticulata. Curtis’s Bot. Mag. 68: t. 3959
The Plant List (2010). Version 1. Available online (accessed 27th April)
Richards, J. (2002). Primula (2nd ed). B.T. Batsford Ltd., London.
Wilford, R. (2010). Alpines from Mountain to Garden. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Kew Science Editors: Malin Rivers and Richard Wilford
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