Species of the Month – Primrose
“Welcome, pale Primrose!” exclaimed John Clare in his Rural Poems and there can be few more heart-warming sights than this herald of the returning Spring. With their subtly-beautiful pale yellow flowers with orange-custard centres, Primroses have an almost ethereal presence as they shine gently from hedgerows and amongst woodland leaves as nature unfurls itself in the gradually warming days.
Primrose flowers are of two types (dimorphic) with the forms borne on separate plants. The flowers are externally identical but inwardly different, being either pin-eyed with the stigma above the stamens, or thrumb-eyed with the stigma below the stamens. For successful pollination, pollen from a pin-eyed plant must reach the stigma of a thrum-eyed plant and vice-versa. The flowers are thus cross-pollinated by long-tongued insects such as bees and butterflies. A bee visiting a pin-eyed flower will get pollen attached to the middle of its tongue and if it then visits a thrum-eyed flower, the pollen is in the perfect position to be wiped onto the stigma at the same height.
They are the larval foodplant for moths such as the Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing, Double Square-spot, Green Arches, Vine’s Rustic and Triple-spotted Clay and are the caterpillar foodplant for the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly – a species under threat with its decline accelerated by the loss of traditional grazing methods. Primroses will tolerate a fair amount of shade but need bursts of light to flower and set seed and have benefited greatly where coppicing has been reintroduced as part of a traditional approach to woodland management.
The Primrose has had many uses in traditional medicine, commonly being utilised as a remedy for rheumatism and arthritis – the plant contains salicylates which have anodyne and anti-inflammatory properties. The whole plant is a sedative and mild narcotic and an infusion was used as a treatment for insomnia, headaches and hysteria – as John Gerard in his great Herbal wrote “Primrose tea is famous for curing the ‘phrensie’”. The root is rich in saponins making it an effective expectorant and so is an ideal remedy for catarrh, mucous and chest infections and the plant is still used in contemporary herbalism as a tonic for the respiratory and nervous systems. The leaves were used to heal cuts and abscesses, both to draw out an infection and to act as a bandage – Culpeper reckoned that from the leaves ‘is made as fine a salve to heal wound as any I know’.
The flowers add a delicate sweetness to salads and were crystalized for puddings and sweets as well as being used for wines, jams and syrups – Susan Avery’s seventeenth century still-room book A Plain Plantain contains an intriguing recipe for a dish made of rice, almonds, honey, saffron and ground primrose flowers.
There is a long-held belief of Primroses allowing people to see fairies – if you touch a fairy rock with the correct number of flowers in a posy you will be shown the way into fairyland (the wrong number will be the way to certain doom…) There is a northern European tradition of children eating the flowers in order to see fairies and if you carry a Primrose and glance quickly over the petals you may catch a fairy by surprise. Posies were thought to deter witches and it may be of use to know that a scattering of primrose petals on the doorstep will keep fairies away as they will not cross this barrier.