I had been thinking about the subject of this week’s column and had decided on primroses.
And so, when I began to type, I typed the heading first … and made a rather nice Freudian slip, for I had recently read a newspaper story about the alleged goings-on at the parties that follow American high school proms; and I typed ‘Promroses.’ But ‘Primroses’ it shall be, and already I imagine I can hear the more experienced gardeners and the more expert wildflower enthusiasts wondering why primroses should be the subject of a piece in early February.
Well, our ancestors used to assign particular flowers to particular months; and the common primrose … Primula vulgaris … was the flower for February because of it is one of the first flowers to bloom in the Spring as its very name implies, for the prima part of the Latin name Primula means ‘first’. Today, the common primrose, or the wild primrose, is much less common than is used to be; and I do ask you, if you do come across any of the delicate yellow flowers while you are walking in the countryside … more probably in the months ahead rather than in February here in central Scotland … to leave them in peace.
Mark you, our ancestors had a variety of uses for the common primrose. It was often associated with poultry-keeping, and a belief common in many parts of the country was that, if you plucked wild primroses and brought them into the home, the flowers would have a bearing on the number of hens’ eggs, geese eggs and ducks’ eggs that would hatch. One version of this old belief was collected as recently as 1971 and was recorded in these words of an elderly woman. “Of course, you had to bring at least thirteen primroses into the house. Do you bring less, it were no use; it didn’t serve. Thirteen was the number, or more. It didn’t seem to matter if you had more: but you durns’t have less.” In times gone by, the custom in poultry farming was to place a clutch of thirteen eggs under a broody hen during the Spring. Each soft yellow primrose was equivalent to one soft yellow chick which, it was hoped, would hatch from the thirteen eggs; so thirteen eggs - thirteen primroses.
Other beliefs linked the wild primrose with human health. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was reported that there were no primroses near the village of Cockfield in Suffolk and that all attempts to establish them there had failed. Locals ascribed this to the fact that, when Cockfield was depopulated by an outbreak of the plague, the primroses caught the infection at the same time and the entire local population of the flowers was wiped out.
And in folk medicine, primroses were used as a cure for yellow jaundice, for certain skin complaints and for ringworm. For jaundice, the remedy was to take primrose roots and boil them in water, the brew being allowed to cool and then bottled so that a wineglassful could be drunk each morning. For facial skin complaints, it was the leaves that were to be boiled up, three leaves to a pint of water, to provide a liquor which, when cool, was drunk. And for ringworm, the leaves were to be mixed with pork lard to make a healing ointment.
But wild primroses were more plentiful then, as they had been when the phrase ‘the primrose path of dalliance’ was coined to mean ‘the route to uncertain pleasure.’ It is possible that this link between the primrose and uncertain pleasure explains why the primrose became associated with courtship. And, since Tuesday of this week is St. Valentine’s Day, we might all do worse than pop into our local pot plant vendor to buy one of the splendid cultivated primroses … often sold as ‘Polyanthus’ … to decorate our February homes this week.
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society