One blessing of a dismal, double-dip winter is the joy of discovering a real sign that it’s over. A few days ago, I encountered a tuft of primroses in full bloom under a hedgerow. At that moment, I would have given my entire collection of frost-scorched and snow-shattered exotics for this one brave English native. It is an ancient emotion, primrose exultation. Back when winters were typically like the one just past, and when there wasn’t even a snowdrop for cold comfort, high hopes depended on Primula vulgaris. It signalled the return of fecundity, fun and life itself. All of which was reflected in its names. ‘Primrose’ was a medieval conflation of two near-identical ideas.
In literary contexts, there was Pryme rolles, or, as Chaucer has it, primerole. This was probably derived from ‘primeverola’, a shortened form of the Italian fior di prima vera, ‘flower of the first of spring’. In monastic texts, meanwhile, there was Prima Rosa, ‘the first rose’, the name preferred by men of learning. By the early 15th century, these two alien ideas had hybridised and naturalised as a single English tag for our favourite spring wildflower-‘primrose’.
If its many local names are any indication, the wider populace was thinking along the same lines. In Somerset, Primula vulgaris was variously known as Early Rose, Easter Rose, First Rose and Darling of April. In Devon, it was the Lent Rose; in Middlesex, the lovely Ladies of Spring. Herbalists and botanists evidently felt the same way. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, both primroses and cowslips were known formally as Primula veris, a name that ultimately became attached to cowslips alone.
It means ‘the first little one of spring’: rarely is science so sweetly affectionate. Shakespeare wrote of the ‘puff’d and reckless libertine’ who treads ‘the primrose path of dalliance’, and of ‘the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire’. Of the eight outings he gives this plant, however, most pay homage to its blameless beauty (‘The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose’, Cymbeline), or to the harmless delights of frolicking among it (‘And in the wood, where often you and I/Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie’, A Mid-summer Night’s Dream).
But there’s no getting away from it: primroses are promiscuous. Their innate variability and careless coupling with cowslips and oxlips, their kissing cousins, can make it rather hard to find pure gold like my hedgerow treasure of the other day. From the 16th century onwards, all this miscegenation resulted in a craze for collecting and breeding cultivars and hybrids. In 1669, it also provided the botanist John Ray with the first inklings of what would become genetics. Ray’s primroses were to biology what Newton’s apple was to physics.
At Monksilver Nursery near Cambridge (01954 251555; www.monksilvernursery.co.uk), Joe Sharman has been restoring our heritage of primrose cultivars and producing new varieties that equal their antique charm. With single or double flowers in ivory, green, amethyst, copper, and wonderfully faded-looking shades of Champagne and chinchilla, these are glorious garden plants. For the moment, however, I only have eyes for fragrant Primula vulgaris, native and unadulterated, glimpsed among grasses on a hedgebank or illuminating the woodland floor. And I’m in distinguished company, as can be seen from the most touching primrose love-in of all.
While walking with Queen Victoria one day, Benjamin Disraeli told his Empress how fond he was of these flowers, and how they made him think of her. She never forgot the compliment, and sent a wreath of primroses to his funeral in 1881, inscribed ‘His favourite flowers from Osborne, a tribute of affection and regret from Queen Victoria’.
Within the Conservative Party, April 19, the anniversary of Disraeli’s death, was named Primrose Day, and the Primrose League was founded, a popular political movement aimed at promoting Toryism across the social classes. In the next few weeks, Disraeli’s won’t be the only party wondering how to achieve such mass motivation. Shakespeare, as usual, said it first. For him the primrose was the equal of any oak: ‘These forceless flowers like sturdy trees support me.’
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