PRIMROSE – Primula vulgaris: Primulaceae
The plant: a perennial plant of early spring. Grows to about 20cm, although often smaller. Seen in hedgerows, damp grassy areas (if shaded) and also in woodland areas and banksides such as railway cuttings. Grows well in lime-stone areas and is not so happy on acidic soils. Has been declining – possibly due to climate change and some areas drying out, or due to over-picking, or other factors such as grass verge cutting, but the precise cause of the decline is just not certain. Is seen throughout the U.K. If a primrose is seen look around for cowslips and violets as well. This plant was photographed in Slitt Wood, near Westgate in Weardale, in May.
The flower: Single five-petalled flower to each stem. Pale yellow but with a more deeply coloured central area. About 2.5cm diameter and seen in February to May depending on the part of the country where it grows.
The leaves: Oval and crinkly; about 10cm maximum length, but variable. Grow as a basal rosette.
Names, mythology, uses and folklore: Named from the Latin Prima Rosa – “First Rose” – but other names include Easter rose, butter rose, May flooer (in Northern Scotland and Shetland). Primrose and cowslip were, prior to the 17th Century, named interchangeably. This confusion of names may be the reason why primrose is called Schusselblume in German – the Key flower – for it is the cowslip which is associated with keys (Grigson). Many legends are associated with it: children eating the flower might see fairies; if a single plant grows near a hen house it is recommended to dance round it three time otherwise egg laying will be compromised; leave a primrose on the doorstep will keep witches out.
Primrose has been used to make a delicate country wine. However large quantities are needed for this purpose and this should no longer be done with the wild plant. Culpepper describes it as being useful in a salve to heal wounds. Legend also has it that the primrose was used by Romans to treat malaria – but much of Italy is too hot and dry to support the plant. Modern herbals seem to ignore the plant – just enjoy looking at it: when you see it spring will certainly have sprung!