Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Everyday Enchantment ~ Angels with Dirty Faces

Primroses in St Mary's Churchyard, Plaistow, March 2016.

“Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede...”

So says Ophelia to her brother, Laertes, in William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', Act I, Scene III, when referring to the hypocrisy of those, whether peasant or priest, who preach the merits of 'goodness' whilst living in quite another way themselves. Good old Shakespeare, truly in so many ways a manifestation of the spirit of the Green Man, a shaman of the quill, weaving yet another little flower into the magic of our language. And so the phrase 'to lead someone down the primrose path', or to encourage taking the way of hedonism and worldly pleasure, rather than the uninviting and dry as dust path to heavenly salvation, was born and the innocent buttery little primrose forever associated with wantonness, despite her seeming fragility. She does so thrive in the damp and fecund edge places, of hedgebank and wood, railway embankment and roadside verge, of churchyard and stream. And all the better for it!

Photo: wildseed.co.uk

Primrose, primula vulgaris, a British native, is one of the first flowers to appear in the spring. She is such a symbol of hope and of life returning with her bright green rosette leaves and creamy yellow translucent petals, as though she has gathered up every ray of pale winter sunlight and turned it into flowers. Her Latin name translates as 'first rose', although she is not related to the rose family at all, and the best times to see her are from March until May. Yet she often births into the light as early as January in sheltered spots during mild winters. I saw my first primroses in flower last week despite the recent snow, which is what has led me to write about them now. Indeed, primrose leaves are almost an evergreen if they are protected by a churchyard wall or a guardian bank and their vibrant leaves are most welcome underfoot during the dark months. A pleasurable path indeed. There are many times when I have been encouraged to walk further than I might have done on damp, washed-of-colour days by a trail of these cheerful little beings amongst the dead leaves, whether in flower or not. It is no wonder that they are the county flower of Devon, where they can be seen in abundance, and were also the choice of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales in a recent Plantlife vote to find the nation's favourite wild flower (England chose the bluebell, with primroses second). American horticulturist, Buckner Hollingsworth, wrote in his 'Flower Chronicles' that “England displays a rose on the Royal crest of arms, but she carries a primrose in her heart”. They are held in deep affection, despite Shakespeare describing "the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire” in MacBeth!

My first primrose flower of 2017, St Martin's Churchyard, Horn Street, 11th January

One of my favourite things about primroses is the way that, when first opened and damp with dew, their petals, for all the world like newly emerged butterfly's wings, are often smeared with mud as though they have had to fight the hold of the winter frost and hard earth to make their way into the light. Truly they are little angels with dirty faces, and I love them for it. They remind me that it is possible to be delicate, soft as butter, pure as milk, and yet brave with it. Snowdrops, although just as tender, have the power of the spear, primroses of the ruffle! Sweet then that some of primrose's common names are 'butter rose', 'lady's frills', and 'milkmaid', although the latter, a name attached to many flowers, may more likely describe the oxlip, a cross between a primrose and a cowslip. She is a fertile little soul, and where no other primroses are present a cowslip will do. Wanton indeed!

Which brings me to a fascinating finding, something that I had never heard of before gathering morsels to write this piece. It seems that primroses bear two different types of flowers, which although hermaphrodite, and superficially the same to the eye, are very different in the secret world of small things. These flowers, which grow on separate plants, are called either 'pin-eyed' or 'thrum-eyed', and the differences between them help to promote cross-pollination and therefore a healthy primrose community. I am certainly not an expert in understanding or describing the diverse sexual shenanigans of plants, and yet it seems that the five petals of primrose flowers join at their base to form a tube. Inside are anthers, which hold pollen grains, and stigma, the female part of the flower where pollen lands to begin the fertilisation process. In the pin-eyed flowers the stigma protrude above the anthers, looking like tiny green pinheads in the centre of the flower. In the thrum-eyed flowers the anthers are longer and the stigma is not visible. At the bottom of the flower is much-prized nectar, only accessible to long-tongued insects (the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly is one). Whichever flower is visited first will deposit pollen perfectly on the insect's tongue to pollinate the opposite type of flower; thrum-eyed to pin-eyed and pin-eyed to thrum-eyed. And voilà, baby primroses everywhere! To add to the wonder, the pollen produced by the two flowers differs. The pollen of the thrum-eyed flower is markedly larger because the tubes put out by the grains in order to reach the flower's ovaries have further to travel from the long stigmas of the pin-eyed flowers. The pollen of the pin-eyed flowers has less work to do, as it is deposited deeper in the flower, and so can afford to be smaller. Truly enchanting! You can see lovely images of the two types of primrose flowers here on the marvellous Bugwoman in London blog, which I highly recommend.

I hadn't realised when I began writing that I would find that primroses are a perfect symbol of the beauties and importance of sexual diversity, nor of a whisper of perhaps asking their blessings in the work of coming into right relationship with the inner feminine and masculine, the anima and animus. What unexpected places the beings of earth, flower, and root can take us to!

Discovering this world of small wonder has gone some way to explaining to me why the primrose was one of the flowers used in the creation of the Welsh goddess, and outcast spirit mother of the hedgerows and edge places, Blodeuwedd, who has also been accused of leading the unwary to the 'everlasting bonfire' with her licentious and shameless ways. And yet how could any being created from flowers ever feel shame for the wild diversity of being that she inhabits; something to be celebrated, rather than damned. The primrose path looks lovelier by the minute.

And in the woods, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose beds were wont to lie...”

(William Shakespeare, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream)

Wild flower stained glass memorial window with primroses, taken in a church in Wales

My second favourite thing about primroses, and one which again concerns the ways in which they extend the boundaries of their loveliness, is that our much-maligned and equally beloved badgers help to spread them along bank and ditch as they dig for worms. How intimate this shimmering Web of Life that we are a part of. As an aside, badgers are also hugely helpful in the growth of difficult to propagate wild cherry trees by consuming the fruit with abandon and then depositing the cherry stones in fertile piles of badger poo. I love this image of badgers as our wild gardeners carefully deciding where cherry trees should be planted.

"The pale brimstone primroses come at the spring
Swept over and fann'd by the wild thrush's wing"

'Primroses', John Clare, 1793 ~ 1864

And why should Brock consider the propagation of primroses to be important for his wild garden? In the early days of medicine they were considered to be an important remedy for muscular rheumatism, paralysis, and gout, and were spoken of by Pliny as a virtual cure-all. The whole plant is a sedative and a tincture made from it was used to treat cases of extreme sensitivity, restlessness, and insomnia. An infusion of the root taken in tablespoon doses was helpful in curing headaches and the plant mixed with lard was used as an ointment for wounds. Its flowers were even the main ingredient in an ancient recipe called 'Primrose Pottage', which sounds delicious and I am a great fan of anything involving the word 'pottage'. She was also a flower of the poor and there are tales of those on a low income collecting primrose petals to bake into pies. It should be noted though that, although the primrose population is considered stable, they have suffered greatly from over collection and habitat loss and we rarely see the great drifts of yellow flowers that many remember from the childhoods. A friend, Patsy, shared with me her own memories of primroses when she was small, "Oh, I remember going primrosing, on the way to Brighton to visit my Nanny in Brighton in the 1960s. The huge, perfumed bunches of soft, pretty pale yellow flowers we gathered to present her with! How excited we got when we discovered a yellow-carpeted glade or roadside bank!" It would be lovely if we were once again able to freely gather primroses, for our Nannies and ourselves, knowing that there would still be abundant drifts of butter roses remaining in the wild places. For now, the plants are rightly protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 which prohibits their collection or removal from the wild.

April 2012
This 'over collection' may have something to do with the amount of folklore which binds the magic of primroses to the faery-kin. Children used to eat the flowers or peer over the top of the petals in the hope of seeing fairies. Posies were left on doorsteps in the anticipation that fairies would bless the house and its residents, although conversely the posies were also believed to provide a barrier to prevent fairies from crossing the threshold. If I were a fairy I might not want to bestow blessings on a household that wielded primrose posies in such a bewildering way! Often their folk-magic was bound up with that of May Day, “Guard the house with a string of primroses on the first three days of May. The fairies are said not to be able to pass over or under the string.” (National Folklore Collection, Ireland). In Ireland, the flowers were rubbed on cows' udders to ensure a rich milk yield and primrose balls were hung on their tails on May Eve to prevent fairies and witches stealing their milk. Despite this lack of generosity, fairies were said to be fond of primroses and to be angry if they were allowed to die through neglect; a fine encouragement to treasure and protect our wild flowers in their natural habitats, rather than bringing them indoors.

Numbers also seem important in primrose folklore. It was said that if one were to touch a 'fairy rock' with just the right amount of primroses in a posy you would be shown the way to Fairyland. If it was the 'wrong' number then one's fate was to be less pleasant, although the form that that might take is obviously too fearsome to relate. As well as protection of the dairy, primroses were also important to hen-wives and children were told never to bring fewer than thirteen flowers into the house in spring, as that would be the number of chicks a hen would then hatch (thirteen being considered the perfect number). The wonderful Plant Lore relates an incident where mediation was required between two old women, one of whom had accused the other of encouraging her child to bring one primrose flower into the house and so cause her hens to only hatch one chick out of each batch of eggs that year! The association between chicks and primrose flowers was thought to be a sort of 'sympathetic magic' as they not only appear at the same time of year, but both are also yellow. This possibly explains the connection with butter and milk too. In some places primroses were also known as 'goslings' and believed to have the same effect on the hatching of goose eggs, but this is more usually a matter for the catkins of pussy willow.

As well as the connection to birth and fecundity, primroses were associated with death, which seems incongruous in such an archetypally 'spring' plant. I wonder how much of this is a later overlay by the Church, one which has also affected snowdrops and their own folklore? Another friend told me that, although she finds primroses pretty, they 'spook her' because to smell their scent meant death. Returning to numbers, this range of meaning for the primrose may be due to the five petals of her flower being said to represent 'birth, initiation, consummation, repose, and death'.  It was also sometimes believed that giving someone a single primrose, or bringing one indoors, would cause death. 

Victorians chose primroses as one of the flowers which should be planted on children's graves. Rev. John Evans wrote in 1898 that, “The snow-drop, violet and primrose denote the infant dust”, echoing the words of Charles Bucke in his 1821 publication, 'On the Beauties, Harmonies, and Sublimities of Nature, with Occasional Remarks on the Laws, Customs, Manners, and Opinions of Various Nations', who said that, “in some villages, children have snowdrops, primroses, violets, hazel-bloom, and sallow blossoms upon their graves.” It seems that, as symbols of youth and innocence, primroses were also the perfect flowers to accompany such small souls into the afterlife. Here, we find Shakespeare again, who describes primrose as the 'funeral flower for youth' in 'Cymbeline', Act 4.

Primroses planted in a Welsh church font

The Greeks named the flower (and its sister, cowslip) 'paralios' after a youth who was said to have died from a broken heart when his love, Melicerta, was turned into a primrose by the Gods. Strange that the flower was named for him and not for her, although primrose is a flower of paradoxes ~ both chaste and wanton, an emblem of birth, innocence, and tender childhood, and a marker of their death, a symbol of love and sweetness, but also of inconstancy, the sense of being forsaken, and lovers' doubts. It seems to me that primrose's 'root wisdom', which weaves together all these aspects, is the reminder to keep our hearts open, through doubts and heartache, through loss and grief, through all the journeys that necessitate us pushing through the dark, emerging fragile, dishevelled, and grubby faced into the pale light. If she can shine and remain butter-soft through all of that then so can we. It is not so very hard.  If we dare to peer over the petals of their beloved flowers, the faery-kin will no doubt remind us that there is an edge of danger and of blessing in everything and that when we have struggled through much that has left us winter-ragged and storm-torn, we all deserve to walk along the Primrose Path for a while.

At eve, the primrose path along,
The milkmaid shortens with a song
Her solitary way;
She sees the fairies with their queen
Trip hand-in-hand the circled green,
And hears them raise, at times unseen,
The ear-enchanting lay.

Rev. John Logan: Ode to Spring, 1780

As a final aside, the writing of this piece has been confused by the ways in which the folklore of primroses and cowslips, which are related species but certainly not the same, seem to have become tangled together. Some authors acknowledge that certain pieces of folk-wisdom apply to both. Others will state that they are sharing primrose folklore when it clearly relates only to cowslips. I believe that sources which  give one of the common names of primrose as 'St Peter's Keys' are guilty of this, for example. And cowslips do look so very much like a little bunch of golden keys. I have omitted information that proved, or felt, wrong. It matters to trust the ground under our feet and our own observations and feelings when writing about flowers, or anything else. And I asked the primroses.

Primroses growing beside a grave, St Mary Plaistow, March 2016




  1. This sure is a beautiful and sacred flower with so many health benefits. It sweet and entciing smell makes it perfect for a perfume and as an essential oil to be added to various products.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I genuinely do appreciate and value what people have to say.