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, those of you who read Saturday’s post will know that I’m spending a lot of time in our local cemetery at the moment, which gives me plenty of time to admire the primroses that are just coming into bloom. They seem to favour sites where the graves themselves have practically disappeared, and have mostly, I’m sure, spread from a couple of primroses planted when the ground was first turned and the headstones, now long-gone, first erected. Close to where I first spotted the fox sunning himself there are hundreds of primroses, poking their heads through the moss and dead leaves like so many eager fishes.
The late Oliver Rackham suggested that primroses will only really prosper where the soil is rich, and where there are higher than average levels of mineral nutrients. If this is so, maybe the primroses are taking advantage of the recycling of the bodies of those who died so long ago. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey notes that the Victorians often planted primroses on the graves of children, which adds a note of melancholy to those patches of prettiness.
The name ‘primrose’ means ‘first rose’, referring to the way that the plant is one of the first spring flowers to come into bloom (though it is not, of course, a rose, being a member of the Primulaceae family). This family includes, to my surprise, such dissimilar plants as cyclamen, pimpernels and creeping jenny.
Primroses come in many different forms, as anyone who has visited a garden centre lately will know. The popular, brash polyanthus is a cross between the native primrose and primula veris, the cowslip. How all those reds and blues came to be is anybody’s guess, but there is a fair amount of diversity even among wild plants. The yellow ‘eye’ in the centre of the plants above can be found in native primroses, but may also have been bred for. There are also occasional ‘rhubarb and custard’ primroses amongst the cream and yellow ones, which I can only imagine have popped up by themselves, over time.
April 19th is Primrose Day, which makes me happy because it is also my brother’s birthday. A bouquet of primroses is placed on Disraeli’s statue outside Westminster Abbey, because these were the politician’s favourite flower. They are also strongly associated with Easter, and, along with daffodils and chocolate eggs, seem to be a popular component of presents over the season. Primroses are also the county flower of Devon.
As I mentioned in last year’s post about the Cowslip, primroses come in two forms: Pin flowers and Thrum flowers. For pollination to be successful, it needs to be between flowers of different forms. Each plant will be either a Pin plant or a Thrum plant. In this way, the plant ensures that it cannot pollinate itself, a fact that helps to ensure diversity.
The leaves and flowers of primroses are said to be edible – certainly the blooms would make a lovely addition to a spring salad (maybe with some English asparagus if there’s any about). In The Ecologist, there’s a lovely (and very honest) article about the joys of cooking with something as delicate as a primrose flower by Susan Clark, and the end result is a primrose meringue nest drizzled with primrose honey, which sounds absolutely delightful. Do have a look at the article here. It made me roar with laughter.
A delicious dish called ‘primrose pottage’ was made from rice, honey, almonds, saffron and ground primrose flowers, and very delicious it sounds too.
The flowers can also be used to make primrose wine, which sounds like one of those drinks that you pack in a picnic basket and drink under a fine old oak tree while the bees buzz languidly past. Well, I can dream. Most of my picnics involve knocking over the wine, noticing that the cream has gone off, being visited by curious and very muddy cows and suddenly realising that one of those cows is actually, well, a bull.
However, before you rush out with a wicker trug, wearing your best bonnet, to gather primrose flowers, note that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it illegal to pick wild primroses or remove them from the wild. Best to get planting in your back garden I think, though as you need 350 primrose petals to make 5 litres of wine I hope you have an extensive acreage.
The primrose also has a long history as a medicinal plant. A Modern Herbal explains that, for Pliny, the primrose was almost a panacea for the treatment of paralysis, rheumatism and gout. Culpeper described how the leaves ‘made as fine a salve to heal wounds as any I know’. Another renowned herbalist, Gerard, notes that primrose tea, ‘drunk in the month of May is famous for curing the phrensie’. So next time you are visited by the phrensie, you know what to do.
So, as I go on my nightly visits to the cemetery for jam sandwich distribution, I am much heartened by the companionship of the primroses, which seem to glow in the half-light. I walk back from my mission, scuffing through the dead leaves and watching the wood pigeons fighting over the ivy-berries. And all along the way, the primroses edge the path, and extend off in every direction. If this is Shakespeare’s ‘primrose path of dalliance’, I am all for it.