There is a wide variety of primrose plants, with over 400 types included in the Primulaceae family. Majority of the various primroses grow in shades of yellow, but there are other varieties that are red, pink, white, purple, or sometimes orange.
From the diverse lands of North America, evening primrose varieties were soon migrated overseas, primarily to Europe, which then spread across the entire globe. Now, you can find various varieties growing in Russia, China, and Australia.
However, the evening primrose is an interesting primrose variety that is both useful and beautiful, that has a bad reputation of being only an invasive weed. The two versions of evening primrose that this article will discuss includes common evening primrose and Mexican evening primrose.
While the names are similar, there are differences between the two that foragers should be aware of before harvesting and growing these plants. Here is what every homesteader and forager should know about foraging and using evening primrose.
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The first type of evening primrose that foragers should keep an eye out for is the common evening primrose, known by the botanical name Oenothera biennis. Other names that the common evening primrose plant is known by include tree primrose, fever plant, and night willow.
Native to the northeastern and midwestern states in the United States, the common evening primrose plant is an herbaceous biennial that requires either full or partial sunlight exposure. In the United States, common evening primrose plant can be found naturally within the range of USDA Plant Hardiness zones 4 through 9.
The common evening primrose variety blooms within the second year of its life span, with germination taking place during the early spring or late fall.
What makes the common evening primrose interesting is that the plant does not bloom during the day, as this variety is a nocturnal plant. The flowers will bloom after the sun has set, revealing yellow flowers that are slightly bell shaped.
This plant replants itself after two years have passed, as seeds will grow at the center of each flower and is a great food source for primarily nocturnal pollinators, including moths and bees.
The common evening primrose will grow to achieve a height between three and five feet tall, as the average mature height, with an average width span of two to three feet.
The other variety of evening primrose to be aware of is the Mexican evening primrose, also known as the pink buttercup plant, pink primrose, or showy evening primrose.
The Oenothera speciosa variety is a smaller version of the evening primrose plant, reaching a mere two feet in height. This variety blooms in the late spring to the early fall, so between the months of May or June to October.
A primary difference between the pink evening primrose and the common evening primrose is the growth cycle, as the pink evening primrose variety is a perennial plant. Similar to the other type, this evening primrose variety can be quite invasive, if not tended to.
A little interesting fact about this kind of plant is that another type became a favorite overseas, in England, in the 17th century. Known as “sundrops”, the primrose variety known as Oenothera macrocarpa became a countryside favorite that reached between three to four feet tall and was also harvested for its sweet roots.
Both the common evening primrose and Mexican evening primrose plants should be kept away from pets, as they can be toxic to domestic animals, such as dogs and cats. Both varieties can easily become invasive, if they are not managed properly in a yard or on your homestead.
Taking the invasive nature of primrose plants into account, it is often best to keep this plant in the wild, as they can overrun a garden quickly. However, if you are interested in keeping this plant close by, then take these growth requirements into consideration.
Areas where these varieties receive the necessary requirements include waste sites, meadows, beaches, dunes, and roadsides. Based on this list of locations, evening primrose is quite a resilient plant in most conditions, thriving in a wide range of soil types and weather patterns.
Types of Primrose
Evening primrose is probably the most well-known type of primrose you can grow, valued for its beauty and other benefits. However, there are plenty of other types of primrose to be aware of (more than 140 other varieties in the genus, in fact!).
Here are some of the most common:
- Primula Baltic Amber: This type of primrose is a favorite among gardeners for its low maintenance, and ability to thrive in partial shade or full sun.
- Primula Belarina Cobalt Blue: These vibrant blue primroses have bright green foliage and white centers, making them stunning additions to any garden. They can be placed in either full sun or partial shade, but make sure to keep them well watered as they are prone to wilt if not kept hydrated.
- Primula Denticulata: Also known as Drumstick primrose, this variety has deep pink flowers that give off a sweet scent when in bloom. The foliage is fern-like, and adds texture to gardens where it’s planted. These primroses prefer cooler climates and partial shade but will also tolerate some sun if needed.
- Gold-Laced Primrose: With its bright yellow blooms and golden veins running through the petals, this variety is sure to catch your eye! The leaves are dark green and glossy, making it an impressive addition to any garden bed. Gold-laced primroses need plenty of moisture to thrive, but can tolerate both full sun and partial shade.
- Common Cowslip (Primula Veris): This common wildflower has delicate yellow blooms with contrasting orange centers that will add color and brightness to any space they inhabit! They prefer moist soil, but can adapt fairly easily to other conditions if necessary.
- Zebra Blue Primrose: Last on our list is this unusual hybrid. It has light blue blooms with white stripes throughout the petals, giving it its zebra-like appearance! The foliage is bright green and glossy like other varieties, making it an attractive choice for your garden beds or containers.
How to Grow
Primarily propagated from the seeds, evening primrose can be both easy and difficult to grow. Seeds can be bought commercially or harvested in the wild. In order for the seeds to germinate properly and then grow into healthy adult plants, evening primrose seeds should be sown into the soil in the early spring or early fall.
Once the seeds are sown into the top of the soil and germinated, gently spread the seedlings apart with approximately one foot of space between each plant.
Evening primrose plants thrive best in soil that ranges between neutral and alkaloid pH levels, ranging between 5.5 and 7. Soil should be well-drained and kept reasonably damp.
By using mulch, you can spread an even layer around each plant to help maintain proper moisture levels. However, be aware of a common sign of overwatering plants, which is discoloration of the foliage.
Whether it be in the petals or leaves, keep an eye out for a browning of the foliage or uneven color in your evening primrose. Whether you purchase pre-established plants, or start from seed, be prepared to immediately plant your primrose in the cooler months.
Most gardens in the northern parts of the United States should be almost, if not fully, planted before late May, or when the weather is just starting to warm up.
If you choose to start your primrose growing venture from seed indoors, then the seedlings should be planted about six inches deep, with eight inches between each plant. Water regularly until the seedlings are well established on their own.
This advice also applies to those who chose to purchase their evening primrose plants, as you want to ensure that the plants establish well in their new soil, once removed from the potting soil. After the plants have been established, this is where caring for evening primrose can cross from being easy to grow to difficult to maintain.
Since the flowers produce the fruit, or the long seed pods, every growing season, evening primrose can reproduce easily, and can just as easily overrun a garden.
Your best option is to make a point of cleaning up after the evening primrose by removing any fallen seeds from the fertile soil on a regular basis, if you have no interest in letting this type of plant become your entire garden. It is also necessary to prune the buds once the flowers are finished blooming for the year.
By pruning the flowers, you will also decrease the opportunities the plants will have to spread by simply cutting or plucking the flowers off of their stems. You may also find it easier to prune your evening primrose as it grows throughout the season.
Even though both of these primrose varieties require full sun or partial shade, these plants like to stay cool. This temperature preference relates to the time frame that primrose plants should be established, which would be in the cooler months either in the spring or fall.
Planting either of these types of primrose during the warmer months will disrupt the natural cycle of the establishment period, which can lead to the plant resembling more of a weed, rather than its actual flowering form.
Fertilizer is not necessary when preparing to plant and care for evening primrose, unless you are working with soil that is nutrient deficient.
It is important to note that during the first year of the primrose’s growth that the plant will not flower but will start to flower the second year. During the first year, keep an eye on the foliage for discoloration, as the primrose will start as a leafy ground cover that grows in a rosette shape.
Evening primrose varieties are quite resistant to the pests and diseases in their ecosystems. The Mexican, or pink, evening primrose variety is even resistant to deer.
However, these plants can be vulnerable to beetles, as they will target and eat the leaves, yet various beetle species will typically not kill the primrose. Other pests that could pose an issue for your primrose include mealy bugs, spider mites, aphids, to name a few.
Majority of diseases that could infect an evening primrose plant often result from poor planting or establishing habits and conditions, so make sure to plant your evening primrose correctly. However, if your plants do contract an infectious disease, there is a fair chance of the disease being botrytis, which can easily be addressed by providing proper air circulation to your primrose.
If in need of creating proper soil conditions for your plants, organic compost is often the best option in promoting great growing conditions, in addition to adding mulch post establishment.
How to Harvest and Use
One of the most common uses of evening primrose is the oil that can be made from the plant parts. While there is little research to support the use of evening primrose herbal supplements and oils, both of the described varieties are edible.
To harvest the oil, you’ll need to collect the leaves and/or flowers (more on this below). However, you can also harvest the roots and seeds of this plant.
The most popular part of the evening primrose plant is the root, which is best when harvest young. The root is best harvested young, before the flowering stage can begin, as the root will become too bitter to consume quickly.
The root, when harvested young, has been said to have a sweet taste, with a fleshy texture, that is a great food source when in the wilderness. The root of evening primrose is a taproot that can look similar in appearance to the root of a parsnip.
Being that the root is just one main vertical piece with small tendrils stemming off of it, the roots are quite easy to dig up. Start by loosening the soil around the taproot with a small fork or gardening utensil, then you should be able to gently pry the root right from the ground.
The root can also be boiled and cooked or eaten raw. In terms of herbal supplementation or oil, evening primrose has been used to aid in the relief of a variety of conditions, including skin disorders, pain issues such as rheumatoid arthritis, and nerve damage as a result of diabetes or osteoporosis.
The leaves can be harvested during the second year of the plants’ growth cycle, then prepared in the same manner typical greens are in dishes.
The roots, seed pods, and flowers are the best candidates for being roasted and consumed in small quantities. The seeds, when dried, make a tasty edition to the breads you bake on your homestead, too.
If you’re interested in making your own primrose oil, the process is pretty simple, and only requires a little bit of patience. Start with an appropriately sized jar, depending on how much oil you intend to make, and make sure the glass container is sterile, as well as the lid.
Collect enough primrose flowers. Only use the flower petals that are free of debris, dew or any moisture, and any imperfections, such as holes left by pests. Fill the jar with the flower petals, but do not stuff the jar, as to allow room for liquid to completely cover the materials.
Pour the carrier oil of your choice into the jar, completely covering all of the flowers. For a carrier oil, there are a variety of options, including olive, grape seed, coconut, and sunflower to name a few.
Poke around at the flowers to ensure there are no air bubbles that could contaminate the process overtime. With the sterilized lid, cover the mixture and let sit for two weeks, making sure to shake the jar at least once per day.
After two weeks, separate the flowers from the oil by straining the flowers from the oil. The remaining oil can then be taken directly as a form of holistic medicine or can be mixed into a salad dressing or other condiment.
The evening primrose plant, both the biennial and perennial types, contain a variety of valuable nutrients, including protein, beta carotene, potassium, and vitamin B3. These varieties also include high levels of gamma linoleic acid and the omega 6 fatty acid.
The seeds have been found to carry the amino acid tryptophan. This amino acid is one that is important in the production of serotonin, as tryptophan is then converted into the well-known mood boosting chemical. The leaves have been noted to carry bioflavonoids and are a great source of the bioflavonoid, quercetin.
Quercetin is a compound that keeps the body’s blood vessels in healthy condition by promoting circulation. Because of this nutritional quality, people have looked to evening primrose for their asthmatic conditions.
The best time to collect the seeds is following a dry spell when the flowers have wilted and begun to turn brown, as these are signs that the seed pods are ripe. Each pod should be lightly pinched or snipped off of the stem, taking care not to take too many from one plant.
Toss the pods into a paper bag for later opening, and make sure to label them with the species’ name so that you can tell them apart from other seeds.
Once home, you can open each pod by hand – carefully breaking them apart and removing the small tan-colored seeds inside. Store in an air-tight container in a cool place until ready to use.
Precautions to Take
As mentioned, evening primrose is edible, yet should only be consumed in small amounts. I have to make this disclaimer for a variety of reasons…
The first reason returns back to the note of keeping evening primrose away from pets, as consuming an excess of evening primrose can lead to primrose poisoning.
Common in pets, but found in humans, primrose poisoning includes symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, an upset stomach, eye irritation, and gastrointestinal inflammation.
It’s important to know when not to consume evening primrose or use products that contain it.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or know someone who is pregnant and or breastfeeding, you or they should definitely not consume or use evening primrose. It is also advisable to not consume or use evening primrose if you, or someone you know, has a blood or bleeding condition, such as a blood clotting disorder.
As with any herbal supplements or plants, it is advised to speak with your doctor or general physician before taking or consuming herbal supplements on a regular basis. This is to prevent any potential issues or interactions with other conditions, including schizophrenia and epilepsy, or other disorders that can trigger seizures.
As a general guide regarding using any herbal supplements, including evening primrose since it has been used to treat conditions, it is ill advised to take more than the regulated dose, as this decision could have adverse effects. Do not consume more evening primrose to make up for a missed intake dosage.
After consuming evening primrose, be sure to be aware of other potential symptoms, and stop taking evening primrose if you experience one or more of these symptoms: hives, difficulty breathing, swelling of face, tongue, or throat.
If any of these symptoms begin to occur, seek immediate medical attention. Evening primrose can also lead to being easily bruised or bleeding more than usual, or bleeding that will not stop.
Avoid consuming any types of evening primrose if you’re currently using any herbs that are linked to affecting blood-clotting conditions, including angelica, capsicum, clove, garlic, ginger, ginkgo, panax ginseng, and red clover.
Evening primrose can also be linked to interacting with anticoagulant and anti-platelet medications and enzymes. If you are currently taking medications with these enzymes, check with your general physician before consuming anymore evening primrose.
Parting Thoughts: A Great Native Plant to Forage
Evening primrose is common across a huge swathe of the United States, and has a wide range of uses. It is also quite easy to identify, even for novice foragers.
So, when you have a chance, take a walk through a nearby forest or roadside and see if you can add some evening primrose to your bag, and put it to use on your homestead.
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.