“And in yon mingled wilderness of flowers,
Fair-handed Spring unbosoms every grace –
Throws out the snow-drop and the crocus first,
The daisy, primrose, violet darkly blue,
And polyanthus of unnumbered eyes.”
From Late Spring by James Thompson (1700-1748)
As the above poem extract so beautifully hints, a few weeks ago it was the likes of Snowdrops, Crocuses, Hellebores and Winter Aconites that were lifting the spirits of the soggy, wind-swept gardeners here at Chartwell, as a long wet Winter looked like giving way to the first signs of Spring. But now as the March sun finally starts to warm both the garden soil and our pasty skin, it is another of the plants mentioned in Thompson’s poem that I would like to talk about this week: the humble Common Primrose.
Primula vulgaris, or the native Primrose, is familiar to and loved by so many people that perhaps we sometimes overlook it or take it for granted. Every Spring without fail it sprouts and spreads its way around both the beds and wilder areas of Churchill’s gardens, brightening up the day for staff and visitors alike, as it teams up with the Daffodils that emerge at the same time.
Native to western and southern Europe, Primroses thrive in full sun or partial shade such as the edges of a woodland area. A single plant usually only reaches 10cm in height and spread but it’s a case of being small but perfectly formed.
The Primrose is a must have for any garden as it well grow happily away in any soil type and any aspect, although it will prefer a sheltered spot if possible. Awarded the RHS AGM (Award of Garden Merit) Primula vulgaris are pretty hardy when it comes to pests and diseases but the likes of slugs and grey mould may have a go at them in wet conditions. Wild specimens are a lovely pale yellow although cultivated varieties come in a huge range of colours, and both single and double flowers. Here at Chartwell a few non-yellow plants have crept in, possibly from pollinating bees who have visited nearby domestic gardens. They are now freely crossing with each other here which leads to some interesting colours…
They are sweetly scented and are even suitable for cutting and displaying in small vases, as long as you’re not picking from the wild! In more populated areas Primula vulgaris has sometimes suffered from over-collection and theft so that few natural displays of primroses in abundance can now be found. To prevent excessive damage to the species, picking of primroses or the removal of primrose plants from the wild is illegal as stated in The UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, Section 13, part 1b.
The name ‘Primrose’ is said to derive from either the old French ‘primerose’ or medieval Latin ‘prima rosa’, both meaning “first rose”, celebrating the fact that it is among the first signs of Spring each year. The common name ‘Primrose’ is sometimes lengthened to ‘Common Primrose’ or ‘English Primrose’ to distinguish it from other Primula species that are also called primroses. The species name ‘vulgaris’ simply means ‘common’.
An old tradition in England is that a six-petaled Primrose flower is lucky for marriage and love, while in Germany the Primrose is supposed to grow where there is hidden treasure and that it has some power to open locks! Primroses were also very important to farmers long ago. The butter-making season began in May and in order to be sure that the cows would produce lots of milk for butter, primroses were rubbed on their udders on May eve! In other areas primroses were scattered on the thresholds of farm houses before dawn on May day to protect the butter from the fairies. Primroses were also historically associated with hens and the laying of eggs. It was considered unlucky to bring primroses into the house if eggs were being hatched there. Primroses have also long been given as gifts. However it was once considered to be very unlucky to give just a single primrose, whereas a very full bunch would be a protection against evil spirits. In old English folk medicine, rubbing a toothache with a primrose leaf for two minutes was said to give relief from the pain. It was also widely used as a cure for jaundice. Both the flowers and leaves are edible, the flavour ranging between mild lettuce and more bitter salad greens. The leaves can also be used for tea, and the young flowers can be made into primrose wine. Not just a pretty face then!
So the next time you come to visit us here at Chartwell, spare some time to look down and admire the little and yellow gems that lurk amongst the undergrowth. Let the Primulas brighten your day like they are currently brightening ours…!