Sunday, May 4, 2014

Plant Story -- Reasons to Like Primroses, Primula

primrose, Primula eliator
from my yard
I’ve been trying for years to grow primroses, genus Primula. Last year I stuck three sad little plants, rescued from the nursery’s end-of-the-season stock, into my yard and ooh, this spring all three are alive and flowering!

What is special about primroses?

They are pretty!

Also, I associate them with the literature set in England I read as a child. Primroses grew in the well-tended gardens of the ladies in quaint English villages. 

In addition, primroses were the usual example of a curious plant reproductive system, studied by Charles Darwin himself and carefully described to us by my professor at Berkeley, Herbert Baker, an Englishman with a fondness for them.

primrose, Primula
primrose, Primula 
probably polyanthus group, 19th century hybrid of P. veris x P. vulgaris
One of the first things I had to do as a botany student was to figure out that the primrose was not a rose, with which I was familiar, nor an evening primrose, with which I was also familiar. Today I can recognize a primrose, but that’s recent. For a long time I knew primroses by what they were not. 
roses, Rosa species, rose family, Rosaceae
wild roses, Rosa woodsii, rose family, Rosaceae

evening primrose, Oenothera species,
evening primrose, Oenothera macrocarpa,
evening primrose family, Onagraceae

oxlip primrose, Primula eliator
Primroses are in the genus Primula, family Primulaceae. There are nine genera in the primrose family, distributed all over the world, but especially in the Northern Hemisphere. The only one I recognize even today after 40 years studying plants is Dodecoatheon, shooting star picture at Missouri Botanic Garden

The USDA plants website lists 20 Primula species, genuine primroses, in North America, all native except 2--and yet almost none of them grow in the places I’ve lived; New York, Ohio, Michigan, Nebraska and California (USDA map). Although four species can be found in Colorado, I have not yet seen them in nature.

Roses and evening primroses, both NO relation to primroses, are much more familiar to me.

Why try to grow an unfamiliar plant? 

Well, because of primrose's happy reputation.

Primroses bloom early in the spring. The name, Primula, is from the Latin word for first, primus, referring to their early spring flowering. For England, they are one of the flowers that symbolize the coming of spring. (In England the common primroses are often called cowslips.)

The Primrose Path sticks in my mind as a positive association, but in fact it is from Shakespeare and slightly sinister:
Doe not as some vngracious pastors doe, 
Showe me the step and thorny way to heauen 
Whiles a puft, and reckles libertine 
Himselfe the primrose path of dalience treads. (Hamlet, I iii 50) 

Primroses had a definite association with wantonness in English folklore.

Folklore also linked primroses to the success of chickens, so that in most places it was bad luck to pick primroses and bring them into the house in the early spring as the hens were starting to lay eggs. In particular the number of primroses picked was the number of fertile eggs the chickens would lay, so bringing in 13 or more primroses was great, but picking only one or two meant there would not be enough eggs this spring. At the beginning of spring, when you'd most want to pick the first primroses to celebrate spring, finding more than 13 might be very difficult. Be careful what you start, you might be hiking a long way for a couple more primrose flowers, even when you don't really believe it affects the chickens.
primrose, Primula.
primrose, Primula, probably a hybrid. No flowers here yet.

Oops, the folklore isn't so positive

                                                                 --  but they are still pretty.

About primrose reproduction next time.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Martin, Laura C. 1987. Garden flower folklore. The Globe Pequot Press, Chester Connecticut.
Vickery, Roy. 1995. Oxford dictionary of plant-lore. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
primrose, Primula eliator

Kathy Keeler
Join me on Facebook:

Buy the book! Curious Stories of Familiar Garden Plants by Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist. Now available on Amazon link

No comments:

Post a Comment