Like little drops of sunshine, the pale yellow flowers of primroses start appearing in March, adorning our fields, banks and hedgerows. I love the way they unfurl: buds that look like loosely-folded umbrellas open out to reveal five heart-shaped petals and a cadmium yellow centre.
The primrose, Primula vulgaris, is one of Britain’s best-loved wild flowers. Its common name is derived from the Latin ‘prima rosa’, meaning ‘first rose’, and it heralds the arrival of spring, braving late snowfalls and strong winds, lighting up a woodland floor before the leaves of the trees have emerged to cast their shade.
The leaves of the primrose are lush green, deeply furrowed and wrinkled, forming loose rosettes which make a perfect foil for the delicate flowers. The plant prefers moist ground in light shade, especially facing the morning sun.
Now, this is something I didn’t know…
There are two types of primrose flowers, apparently identical but with one important difference. Look carefully at their centres. In some, there is a greenish-yellow pin (these are called ‘pin-eyed’) while in others there is a slightly thicker cluster of yellow anthers (these are called ‘thrum-eyed’).
This is nature at its cleverest, because the plant has found a way to avoid self-pollination.
In the pin-eyed flowers, the stigma is at the top and the anthers, which carry the pollen, are half-way down the flower tube; while in the thrum-eyed ones, it is the anthers that are at the top and the stigma is lower down.
When a butterfly visits a pin-eyed flower to feed on the nectar, it gets pollen stuck on the middle of its proboscis from the anthers that are half-way down the tube. Then, when it visits a thrum-eyed flower, the pollen is perfectly placed to be wiped onto the stigma. This also happens the other way around: pollen from the anthers of a thrum-eyed flower sticks to the top of an insect’s proboscis, and this is then deposited onto the stigma of a pin-eyed flower.
I call that a stroke of genius!
Both the leaves and the flowers of the primrose are edible: the flowers can be sugared for cake decoration, and the young leaves may be added to salads. The root and flowers contain a fragrant oil, which has traditionally been used for flavouring syrup and tea.
In herbal medicine, a tincture of primrose was taken to alleviate rheumatism and gout, and the leaves were used to treat wounds. Primrose tea is reputedly good for the nerves: the 16th century herbalist John Gerard recommends the drinking of primrose tea in the month of May, as it is ‘famous for curing phrensie’. (I imagine that ‘phrensie’ is an old spelling of ‘frenzy’, indicating hysteria.)
It seems a shame to go harvesting primroses for medicine – and anyway, just by looking at them, you can’t help but feel better!
The primrose is widespread throughout Britain, and further afield it occurs in southern and western Europe. It is a popular garden plant, and nurserymen have produced many beautiful cultivars in a rainbow of colours.
Scotland’s rare beauty…
Scotland has its own unique primrose: Primula scotica, an endemic species which is restricted to coastal grassland sites in Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney. Clusters of tiny magenta flowers are borne aloft on stalks about 4 cm tall, above silvery-green oval leaves.
Have you seen any primroses in flower yet? Have you been lucky enough to find Primula scotica in the wild?
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf except where stated