Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, during the day Evening Primrose can appear to be a rather shambolic plant. Its flowers, which emerge gradually and advance up the stem, can seem limp and unkempt, and the effect is of a plant which is lank and ‘weedy’.
And yet, as darkness falls, the plant undergoes a transformation. The flowers raise their heads and open their petals, so that they can be pollinated by the moths that are attracted to their faint perfume. I was fascinated by the difference between the day-time flower and its night-time exuberance, and I’m not the only one – for a photo sequence showing how the blooms go from closed to fully open in ten minutes, have a look at Rob’s Flowers.
Because it attracts nocturnal insects, Evening Primrose is also a great plant if you would like to be visited by bats, something I would certainly recommend. Nothing beats sipping a glass of something cold on a summer evening while the flittery shapes of pipistrelles swoop past.
A quick look at the design of the plant gives us a clue to its family: Large-flowered Evening Primrose is not a primrose, but yet another member of the Willowherb family.The stigma of Evening Primrose flowers is an ‘X’ shape, as you can see in the photo above. This particular species of Evening Primrose also has red sepals (the part of the flower that protects the bud), as you can see in the photo below.
The Evening Primrose family probably originated in Central America and Mexico, but it is a plant that hybridises extremely easily, and produces many variations. This species was introduced to the UK as a garden plant in the seventeenth century, but was seen ‘in the wild’ very shortly after this. It is a primary coloniser of disturbed land, and indeed one popped up beside my pond last year following my attempts at renovation. It is a biennial plant – in the first year, there will just be a rosette of leaves, followed by the flowers in year two. However, it doesn’t seem to be persistent – it is quickly out-competed by other plants. Its delicate appearance is matched by its ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ habit, so, like so many things, we need to appreciate it while it’s here.
The genus name of the Evening Primroses, Oenothera, may come from the Greek for ‘Donkey Catcher’, which is a little puzzling as the plants are native to the New World, which had no wild horses prior to the Spaniards. The family name for all the Willowherbs, Onagraceae, also has an equine connection: it means ‘food of the Onager’, an onager being a handsome and athletic species of Asiatic wild ass, which in the wild can run at up to 64 mph. As it has been hunted nearly to extinction, I suspect that these days it has very little chance to graze on willowherbs of any kind.
The reason that most of us have heard of Evening Primrose, of course, is because it is a source of Gamma-linoleic acid, or GLA. Evening Primrose oil was originally used by Native Americans to treat ‘swelling of the body’, and became a popular folk-remedy in Europe, known as ‘the King’s Cure-all’ However, it has been a controversial plant, having been taken off the list of recommended drugs for dermatitis back in 2002, and rejected by the American Cancer Society as a treatment for cancer or, indeed, anything else. However, I remember taking Evening Primrose capsules for PMT when I was younger, and thinking that it helped, though whether this was Primrose or Placebo is open to discussion. There are also studies showing that GLA may help with neuropathic pain. It does act as a blood-thinner, however, so anyone who is already taking such medication should proceed with particular care.
The roots of Evening Primrose can be boiled and eaten, and the buds are also said to be edible. If you would like some recipes for Evening Primrose Fritters, and for Roasted Winter Vegetables including Evening Primrose root, have a look at the wonderful Sacred Earth website here, and do let me know how you get on! However, Evening Primrose is not a common plant in my half-mile territory, and so I will be leaving it for the moths, and the bats that feed on them.