Sunday, May 18, 2014

Plant story--Primroses, Primula--Post Script

Every subject I write about has far more information available than will reasonably fit into even two posts. (previous primrose posts 1, 2). Usually I keep it to two posts and save the rest for "someday." However, I can't resist sharing what I learned about the word thrum and the color primrose. 

First: what is a thrum?

The only place I'd ever heard the word thrum was in a graduate school botany class , for the flower form of primroses (link)--until I started weaving ten years ago. Thrums are the short ends that are cut off when a piece of weaving comes off the loom. From 1. one of the ends of the warp in a loom, left unwoven and remaining attached to the loom when the web is cut off." 

brown thrums hanging on the loom
brown thrums hanging on the loom
Close up of thrums a loom
Close up of thrums a loom

There is another meaning of thrum, any short piece of thread or yarn tuft, tassel or fringe of threads, as at the edge of a piece of cloth. I wasn't aware of this meaning until I researched this post.
thrums, the fringe at the edge of the weaving
thrums, the fringe at the edge of the weaving
The Oxford English Dictionary has quotes from the mid 16th century where the word thrum applied to various flowers that have a ends-of-thread look, for example to talk about a group of visible anthers. In 1650 they might have described the anthers at the center of the roses and where the rose petals have fallen off as thrums (below). Likewise they might have used the word thrum for cluster of anthers and stigma sticking out of the center of the evening primrose flowers in the second picture below.
wild roses, Rosa woodsii ; rose family, Rosaceae
wild roses, Rosa woodsii ; rose family, Rosaceae

evening primrose, Oenothera species,
evening primrose, Oenothera macrocarpa,
evening primrose family, Onagraceae
It seems that in the 16th and 17th centuries, scientists publishing in English applied a weaving term to describe flower parts and assumed their readers would recognize it. When did we all cease to know weaving jargon? 

In my experience, in botany today, the word thrum is only used to refer to one of the two forms of a distylous plant, as in the primroses below.  Most biologists probably don't know the word at all--this specific flower terminology doesn't come up much and very few of them weave.

So thrum has probably gone from being a household word to almost completely obscure in 300 years. 

primrose pin and thrum flowers
primrose pin and thrum flowers

Second: What color is primrose?

Primrose should be the color of primroses, right?

Looking it up, I found the color "primrose" is a light yellow. That is the color of wild primroses in England. Below is Primula eliator which is close to primrose-colored.  See the color of  Primula vulgaris, the common primrose LINK.

Primula eliator, primrose colored
Primula eliator, primrose colored
However, red, blue and nearly purple primroses are common today. It is no longer obvious what color "primrose" is. The red-flowered plant below is a primrose, but it is not primrose colored. If you buy primroses from the nursery, as I did, very few of the primroses for sale are primrose-colored primroses. 

primrose, Primula
primrose, Primula
A Google search for "primrose color" came up with about half yellow and half pink responses. (check it out primrose color) It does seem logical that primROSE should be a pink, even though it isn't. Below is a rose-colored primrose.

primrose, Primula hybrid
primrose, Primula hybrid

Language changes. Primroses are not common garden plants in the United States and only a some of the ones sold are yellow. Actually, some of those are too intense to be called primrose. Below is a yellow primrose that isn't primrose colored.

primrose, Primula hybrid
primrose, Primula hybrid

My guess is that in England and in Europe generally, people would know light yellow primroses and expect that to be the color "primrose" while in the United States, most people will hear "rose" in the name and expect a pink. What of other English-speaking countries? What color is primrose in Australia or India or Canada?

For certain: Don't buy a primrose-colored garment sight unseen!

So primroses, very prosaic plants if you live in the English countryside, provide insight into our changing world. 

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler

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