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Oxlip Plant Info: Information On Growing Oxlips Plants

Oxlip Plant Info: Information On Growing Oxlips Plants


By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

Oxlip primrose plants are suitable for growing in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 through 8. Like primrose, oxlips are among the first plants to appear in early spring. The pale yellow, primrose-like blooms attract bees and other pollinators to the garden. If this has piqued your interest, read on for more oxlip plant information.

What are Oxlips?

Also known as true oxlip or oxlip primrose plant, oxlip (Primula elatior) is a member of the primrose family and the leaves look quite similar. However, oxlips are tougher and more able to withstand heat and drought than its more sensitive cousins.

The plant is commonly confused with another closely related primula known as cowslip (P. veris), which is similar looking but has smaller, bright yellow flowers (with red dots inside) and are bell shaped.

Oxlip plants are frequently found growing wild. Although the plant prefers woodlands and moist meadow environments, it does fine in gardens.

Growing Oxlips Plants

Oxlip plants prefer partial shade or dappled sunlight. They tolerate poor to average soil and are often found growing in heavy clay or alkaline soil.

Autumn is the best to plant oxlips seeds outdoors if your winters are mild. Sprinkle the seeds on the surface of the soil, as they won’t germinate without sunlight. The seeds will germinate the following spring.

You can also plant oxlip seeds inside about eight weeks before the last frost in spring. Prepare for planting three weeks ahead by mixing the seeds with damp peat moss or potting mix, then store the bag in the refrigerator. The 3-week chilling period mimics the natural outdoor chilling period.

Fill a planting tray with moist potting mix, then plant the chilled seeds on the surface. Place the tray in indirect light, where temperatures are maintained about 60 F. (16 C.) Watch for the seeds to germinate in two to six weeks. Transplant the oxlip primrose plants after the last frost in spring.

Once planted, oxlip plants require very little care. Water moderately and feed the plants before flowering time in spring. A layer of mulch keeps the roots cool and moist during the summer months.

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Operation Oxlip

The West Cambridgeshire Hundreds are one of the few places you can still find oxlips in abundance.

Hayley Wood is the largest oxlip wood on chalky boulder clay in Britain and one of only a very few woods in Cambridgeshire surviving from prehistoric times a valuable remnant of ancient woodland, it's a haven for biodiversity in a landscape of intensive farming. The Trust's management work creates a varied structure, with trees of different stages of maturity, some areas coppiced on rotation (read more below), wide grassy rides and minor paths. This creates a variety of microhabitats that suit different species and so conserves the biodiversity of the wood and sustains a harvest of mature trees for timber and coppice poles with many uses.

The humble oxlip, Primula elatior, is a delicate spring flower found in damp woods and meadows favouring nutrient-poor and calcium-rich soil, and often associated with ancient woodland, characterised by flowers facing the same direction to one side, found only in small areas of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex. Whereas the far more common cowslip, Primula veris, is found across much of the UK, with deeper yellow flowers on both sides, as is the false oxlip Primula veris x vulgaris, a hybrid of cowslip and primrose which grows to the same height as oxlip but the flowers do not grow one-sided.

Funding for much needed woodland management work at Hayley Wood of £20,600 came from the Amey Community Fund, which awards grants to support community, environmental and heritage projects run by non-profit organisations based in Cambridgeshire, within 10 miles of a landfill site. The fund is managed by Cambridgeshire Community Foundation and is part of a voluntary environmental tax credit scheme called the Landfill Communities Fund.

The grant has enabled extending coppicing into two new areas bordering cross rides in the wood, plus additional work in other areas improving the woodland structure. Work carried out by staff included clearing two acres along the cross rides to create new coppice plots selective felling of mature standard trees felling an area of mature ash succumbing to ash die back in the southern corner, allowing other species to regenerate mowing grassland ride and glade areas on the cross rides and maintaining paths, gates and footbridges for safe public access.

This project is opening up new areas of the woodland floor where the oxlip and other ground flora can flourish, and provide prime habitat for many invertebrates and birds.


Primula – Primrose, Perennials Guide to Planting Flowers

Hardy Primroses are showy plants which fit in well with any Spring bedding design. The small flowers are graceful and dainty and the varieties can be so chosen that they will be in bloom from April for a month. Primroses grow from 6 inches to 18 inches high and have light green, hairy leaves. The colors of the hardy sorts range from white to the darkest crimson and yellow. Some of the varieties are double, and others present this appearance because the petals are wavy and crinkled.

The hardy sorts of Primroses are derived from Primula elatior, P, veris and P. vulgaris. These are much of one type, the flowers being borne in umbels or clusters of six to twelve flowers. There is, however, another interesting species, P. japonica, the Japanese Primrose, which bears the flowers so that one umbel, or cluster, is above another. The colors vary from rich dark crimson through the intermediate tints to white. The petals are of heavy texture and waved. Almost all the varieties of Primroses are worth growing and wherever planted, they increase in beauty and interest with each succeeding year.

UTILIZE. Primulas make delightful subjects for the rock garden, edging a shady border or against old walls. They naturalize readily along streams, woods or shrubbery and are also suited for growing in porch boxes or in pots. The flowers are fragrant and make splendid cut flowers.

GENERAL. Primulas are not difficult to grow, yet they reward one for any amount of trouble. One of the first requisites is to keep the soil moist. The plants will die if they are allowed to pass through the dry Summer months without plenty of water. Primroses should be planted in a rich, well-drained soil in a shaded nook in order. to protect the plants from the hot sunshine during the Summer. Slight protection during Winter is needed, such as a light mulching of leaves and straw. In the Fall, if the crowns of any of the plants are above the surface of the soil, these plants should be taken up and reset. Primroses resent a great deal of cultivation good, rich soil, partially shaded quarters and plenty of moisture are all they need.

PROPAGATION. Primroses are usually propagated by seeds sown in March in a coldframe or in May to July outdoors in shaded places. The seed should just be scratched into the surface soil and firmed. The plants can also be divided early in Spring or in the Fall.

Primula – Primrose, English Cowslip, Oxlip, Polyantha


Grantham Ecology

Cowslips are a common sight in April and May – brightening up grasslands and motorway verges with their swathes of nodding yellow flower heads. When I first started out in botany, I spent a good while convincing myself that the cowslips were indeed cowslips and not oxlips – Rose’s wildflower key tells you that cowslip is like oxlip but the ‘leaves are more wrinkled and the stem is more gradually tapered to the base’ which requires a certain amount of experience to compare! Luckily the sniff test (cowslip flowers smell like apricots) saw me right!

One simple rule of thumb is location – true oxlips are a rare ancient woodland species restricted to the part of the country where the counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex meet. Unless you are in a location like this, you are unlikely to be encountering oxlip. But to be on the safe side, here’s a few more pointers!

Cowslip – Primula veris

Cowslip flowers at Cribbs Meadow – the bright yellow bell-shaped flowers at the top of the stems all nod in a single direction

The flowers of cowslip, like those of oxlip, form a nodding head facing in a single direction. They can be long-stemmed – up to 25cm tall, but are often shorter where the nutrient levels are lower. The flowers are deep yellow with orange flecks in the centre.

Cowslip flower at Muston Meadow showing the orange flecks within the flowers – these smell of apricot if you get in close!

You can find up to 30 flowers in a flower head, or sometimes just a few. Remember to take a sniff – the apricot aroma is quite distinctive in a fresh flower!

Oxlip – Primula elatior

Oxlip flowering at Hayley Wood – the flowers nod in a single direction and there can be 10-30 in an umbel

Oxlip, as mentioned above, is a rare native found in ancient woodland in a restricted area of the country. If you are encountering the species on a roadside verge or in a meadow in Nottinghamshire, it’s probably not an oxlip. However the species can be bought as a plant, or grown from seed, so it is quite possible it can spring up in unexpected places if it escaped the confines of its sowing!

The oxlip is similar in structure and stature to the cowslip, in growing to

25cm high and having 10-30 flowers on a head. As with the cowslip, all of the flowers will be nodding on the same side of the stem.

The oxlip flowers are more open and spreading, lacking the bell-shape of the cowslip. They are generally a paler yellow, and lack the orange flecks inside.

The oxlip flower is less bell-shaped than the cowslip, with more open spreading petals and a lighter, paler yellow. The centres of the flowers lack the orange spots usually found with cowslip.

False oxlip – Primula vulgaris x veris

False oxlip along the Grantham Canal – the flowers have the orange flecks of the cowslip but spread wider, reflecting the primrose part-parantage of this hybrid. The flowers face in all directions, rather than nodding in a single aspect.

Just to add to the confusion, there is another species which can be confused with both cowslip and oxlip and this is the false oxlip. The latin name is Primula vulgaris x veris reflecting the fact that a false oxlip is in fact a cross between a primrose and a cowslip, occuring where these two species are found in close proximity. If you find something which you suspect to be an oxlip outside of the correct habitat and geographical area, a false oxlip is your most likely suspect!

The flowers are more open and spreading, a little like an oxlip, but you can see the telltale orange flecks which indicate the cowslip parantage. Rather than nodding in a single direction, as a pure oxlip or cowslip would do, these flowers face in all directions. There is significant variability in the character or these hybrids, with some being closer to the primrose parent and some more strongly representing cowslip.


What is an Oxlip?

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An oxlip, also known by its scientific name Primula elatior, is a flowering plant native to parts of Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and Russia. It is recognizable by its pale yellow, drooping flower clusters, held up by thin stalks which project upward from bright green bunches of leaves. As its features are very similar to those of the cowslip, it is sometimes misidentified by amateur plant enthusiasts.

Oxlip is found in several regions of Europe. It is quite common in southern Sweden as well as parts of Denmark. To a lesser extent, the plant appears in northern Russia and the United Kingdom. Wild oxlip thrives in moist, woodland soil with full or partial sunlight. The plant is also sometimes cultivated for decorative purposes, and it appears in private and public gardens throughout Europe.

An oxlip plant’s flowers are pale yellow in color. Each cup-shaped blossom is approximately 0.5 to 1 inch (1.27 to 2.54 centimeters) in width and consists of five notched petals. These flowers are typically found in downward-hanging clusters of two, three, or more. The clusters are held up by thin stalks which range from 4 to 12 inches (about 10.16 to 30.48 centimeters) in height. Oxlips usually bloom between late spring and early summer.

In addition to its flowers, the oxlip can be identified by its low bunches of bright green leaves. These leaves are roughly oval in shape, with irregular, serrated edges and slightly tapered ends. They typically range from 2 to 6 inches (about 5.08 to 15.24 centimeters) in length, and 0.75 to 2 inches (about 1.91 to 5.08 centimeters) in width. The surfaces of the leaves have a distinctly wrinkled appearance. They tend to grow low to the ground and are not found on the plant’s stalk.

Both the flowers and the leaves of the oxlip bear a marked resemblance to those of the Primula veris, or cowslip. The two plants are often found in the same areas of Europe, and certain 19th-century scientists even theorized that the oxlip was a naturally-occurring hybrid of the cowslip and another flowering plant, the primrose. While the oxlip and the cowslip continue to be commonly confused by amateur plant enthusiasts, the cowslip’s flowers tend to be both smaller and brighter than those of its close relative, and also have a distinctive red dot at their centers.


Cowslip or Oxlip?

Cowslips are a common sight in April and May – brightening up grasslands and motorway verges with their swathes of nodding yellow flower heads. When I first started out in botany, I spent a good while convincing myself that the cowslips were indeed cowslips and not oxlips – Rose’s wildflower key tells you that cowslip is like oxlip but the ‘leaves are more wrinkled and the stem is more gradually tapered to the base’ which requires a certain amount of experience to compare! Luckily the sniff test (cowslip flowers smell like apricots) saw me right!

One simple rule of thumb is location – true oxlips are a rare ancient woodland species restricted to the part of the country where the counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex meet. Unless you are in a location like this, you are unlikely to be encountering oxlip. But to be on the safe side, here’s a few more pointers!

Cowslip – Primula veris

Cowslip flowers at Cribbs Meadow – the bright yellow bell-shaped flowers at the top of the stems all nod in a single direction

The flowers of cowslip, like those of oxlip, form a nodding head facing in a single direction. They can be long-stemmed – up to 25cm tall, but are often shorter where the nutrient levels are lower. The flowers are deep yellow with orange flecks in the centre.

Cowslip flower at Muston Meadow showing the orange flecks within the flowers – these smell of apricot if you get in close!

You can find up to 30 flowers in a flower head, or sometimes just a few. Remember to take a sniff – the apricot aroma is quite distinctive in a fresh flower!

Oxlip – Primula elatior

Oxlip flowering at Hayley Wood – the flowers nod in a single direction and there can be 10-30 in an umbel

Oxlip, as mentioned above, is a rare native found in ancient woodland in a restricted area of the country. If you are encountering the species on a roadside verge or in a meadow in Nottinghamshire, it’s probably not an oxlip. However the species can be bought as a plant, or grown from seed, so it is quite possible it can spring up in unexpected places if it escaped the confines of its sowing!

The oxlip is similar in structure and stature to the cowslip, in growing to

25cm high and having 10-30 flowers on a head. As with the cowslip, all of the flowers will be nodding on the same side of the stem.

The oxlip flowers are more open and spreading, lacking the bell-shape of the cowslip. They are generally a paler yellow, and lack the orange flecks inside.

The oxlip flower is less bell-shaped than the cowslip, with more open spreading petals and a lighter, paler yellow. The centres of the flowers lack the orange spots usually found with cowslip.

False oxlip – Primula vulgaris x veris

False oxlip along the Grantham Canal – the flowers have the orange flecks of the cowslip but spread wider, reflecting the primrose part-parantage of this hybrid. The flowers face in all directions, rather than nodding in a single aspect.

Just to add to the confusion, there is another species which can be confused with both cowslip and oxlip and this is the false oxlip. The latin name is Primula vulgaris x veris reflecting the fact that a false oxlip is in fact a cross between a primrose and a cowslip, occuring where these two species are found in close proximity. If you find something which you suspect to be an oxlip outside of the correct habitat and geographical area, a false oxlip is your most likely suspect!

The flowers are more open and spreading, a little like an oxlip, but you can see the telltale orange flecks which indicate the cowslip parantage. Rather than nodding in a single direction, as a pure oxlip or cowslip would do, these flowers face in all directions. There is significant variability in the character or these hybrids, with some being closer to the primrose parent and some more strongly representing cowslip.


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