The subtle, enchanting Barnhaven primulas have been lovingly safeguarded through the generations. Anna Pavord tracks down the genuine article
The secret to having a good garden, said a friend of mine, is to find out what likes you and then grow a lot of it. It's good advice, but I don't always follow it. "Oh, please let's be friends," I plead, as I crouch over a myrtle that would obviously prefer to be anywhere else but in our patch. "Do stay, do stay," I beg a ranunculus that is edging out of a border like a guest trying to escape from a really BAD party.

So it was a pleasure to return from two weeks away and find the garden brimming with primroses, which evidently are prepared to like us. Clumps of a white Barnhaven primula, one of the few varieties that I got around to splitting last year, are now flowering between dark blue hyacinths and the low, pale, ferny foliage of sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata. In another group the colours are reversed, with white hyacinths and a stray bit of Euphorbia robbiae which absent-mindedly wandered off from the place in which it had been put, partnering blue cowichan primulas. I grew them years ago from Jared Sinclair's Barnhaven seed.

He is now one of the many ghosts that haunt our garden - I hope happily. Nine years ago, the last-ever brown envelopes of primula seed arrived from this extraordinary Cumbrian seed specialist. "Farewell", said the note that came with them. "On battered wings we are finally buzzing off. Maybe in years to come we'll be croaking 'Wasn't it fun' and fall cackling from our perches. Maybe."

"Cherish them," said Jared about his extraordinary plants. "They will be with you longer than we will." I sowed a mixture of coloured primroses called 'Butterscotch', copper, bronze, apricot and yellow, a pot of polyanthus 'Valentine Victorians', rich crimson pinks, and another pot of polyanthus 'Rustic Reds' the colours of tawny wallflowers. Never have I felt so anxious about seed. It was worse than being an accoucheur to kings.

But that was a long time ago and though the garden is bright with primulas, the strain is no longer pure Barnhaven. They have been crossing with all the other primroses in the garden and I have not been rigorous enough about weeding out these self-sown bastards. Though cross- bred, they are still extraordinarily pretty: smudgy colours of pewter, bronze, grey purple and dirty pink. So, of course, I had to go to Sonia Wright's nursery in Wiltshire to make good the damage. She is one of the saviours who keep the Barnhaven strain of primroses alive and available. My plan was to replace the navy blue cowichan primroses I had lost.

But Ms Wright's primroses were all in flower too, and it would have been criminal to have left behind the plant with petals as deep as oxblood damask. And one grey-blue Barnhaven primrose (from the Muted Victorian series) looked awfully lonely on its own. And so it went on...

Ms Wright started the nursery (she describes it as "a wide and somewhat eccentric collection") five years ago, on a windy plot of ground she had borrowed from a neighbour. Her office is in a high, rust-coloured old shepherd's van parked on the edge of the field. From this retreat, the smell of properly made coffee drifts out over the polytunnel in which she overwinters her collection of tender plants.

The Barnhaven primulas do not need that kind of cosseting. They are lined up outside against the fence, flowering in the face of wind, hail and tempest. The only difficulty is that the roots rot if the compost gets too wet. The plants are happier if they are planted out in open ground. My own soil is heavy, damp clay, which they seem to enjoy, and they grow in shade as well as sun.

Ms Wright has been gardening, she says, since she was three. She desperately wanted to train at Kew, but her father suggested she got "a proper job"; it has taken half a lifetime to get where she wanted to be at the beginning. She first started growing plants to feed her garden-design business (she still does design too), but the nursery grew and grew. Initially, she didn't want to sell any of the treasures she had begun hoarding up around her, but she had to, so that she could buy time to acquire and grow even more. The nursery's growth and her success are "a constant surprise", she says.

The demand for the kind of plants she grows - columbines, iris, grasses, spurges - terrifies and excites her in almost equal measure. Occasionally she wobbles on her crested wave. "I see this wave quite clearly," she says. "A designer wave, of course. Usually that one you see in Japanese woodcuts, the curling one with the lacy edge."

It was her designer's eye that drew her to the Barnhaven primulas in the first place; the flowers were the right size for the leaves, the colours were muted and unexpected. "The Barnhavens are the colours of old-fashioned vegetable dyes. Most of the primroses and polyanthus you see in garden centres are more harshly coloured, like modern chemical dyes."

Like so many good things, the Barnhaven primulas can be traced back to Gertrude Jekyll, who, at the turn of this century, first started selecting different-coloured strains of primroses in her garden at Munstead Wood, in Surrey. She worked on them until 1896, when several seed companies, including Suttons, began to offer seed of her strains.

By chance, the American Florence Bellis, an out-of-work pianist, sensibly spent her last five dollars on four packets of the Sutton/Jekyll primroses. In her garden at Barnhaven, Oregon, she continued the work that Jekyll had begun. She crossed and counter-crossed varieties, producing over a period of 30 years more and more types of the primrose that was by then stamped with the name of her home. For some time Florence Bellis had been in touch with the Cumbrian nurseryman Jared Sinclair and his wife Sylvia. One day he received a parcel of seed from Mrs Bellis, with a cryptic note "Yours to keep or kill". Heroically, in his freezing, open-sided growing shed, he kept (and developed) her flowers, until, after 20 years, he had had enough.

The torch then passed to an academic librarian, Angela Bradford, who continues to produce and send out seed of Barnhaven primulas from her garden in Brittany. Sonia Wright's plants are all grown from this seed. Provided the seed is kept cool, this is not difficult to do. Sow now on the top of compost in a smallish pot. Cover the seed with fine grit and leave the pot somewhere shady until you see signs of the first leaves (this may take as much as six weeks). Then prick out the seedlings and grow them on to flower next season. If you are impatient (like me) and want colour NOW, trawl the nurseries.

Sonia Wright's nursery is at The Old Vineyard, Grove Farm, Stitchcombe, Marlborough, Wiltshire SN8 2NG Tel: 01672 514003. It is open all year (10am to dusk) every day except Wednesday and Sunday. You can also get some strains of Barnhaven primulas from Abriachan Nurseries, Loch Ness Side, Inverness, Inverness-shire, IV2 6LA (01463 861232); Ryal Nursery, East Farm Cottage, Ryal, Northumberland NE20 0SA (01661 886562); or Field House Nurseries, Leake Road, Gotham, Nottinghamshire NG11 0JN (01159 830278). Michael Loftus also has many of them at his nursery, Wootten's Plants at Wenhaston, Blackheath, Halesworth, Suffolk IP19 9HD (01502 478258). For seed, contact Angela Bradford at Barnhaven Primroses, Langerhouad, 22420 Plouzelambre, France (00 33 296 35 31 54)