‘Do not, as some ungracious pastors do
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
while, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
and reaks not his own rede.’
– Ophelia, Act I Scene III, Hamlet
In Shakespeare’s time a path strewn with primroses was a common metaphor: it signified the easy option, the choice that was alluring, the least challenging and most self-indulgent.
There’s a note of rebuke in Ophelia’s words – as also in Macbeth, where a porter speaks about ‘treading the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire’. The implication is that following the beckoning of the pretty little primrose is to disregard the right and proper, but more difficult course: primroses, in other words, mean temptation.
It’s an interesting dark note to what’s generally seen as a symbol of youth, happiness, spring and innocence: a reminder that youth can be impetuous, happiness a shallow goal and innocence corrupted.
I find primroses a temptation that’s very hard to resist at this time of year. We’re lucky enough to have banks of them here: tumbling down the grass in cheeky froths of palest yellow, shrugging off the coarsest of grasses, peeping out from among hedgerow plants and at the feet of roses: if you plant them on purpose they often fail to thrive, yet they’ll seed themselves into the oddest of corners and seemingly love it.
Primroses were among the first flowers ever to be grown. They were brought in from the fields by mediaeval peasants at the time of the Domesday Book alongside cowslips, verbascums and mallows to be planted among the cabbages and onions, and cared for with as much love as any modern gardener.
Of course these days that’s illegal: primroses are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and you can’t pick them, let alone dig them up wholesale. Luckily they’re not too difficult to raise from seed, as long as you sow them on the surface of the compost – don’t cover – and leave them outdoors and exposed for the frost to get to them.
And quite apart from their sheer prettiness – and the joy they bring as the ‘first rose’ of spring – they are extraordinarily useful (one of the reasons they earned their place in those mediaeval cottage gardens).
Every part is useful: you can infuse the plant and its leaves to make a tea (one part primrose to 10 parts hot water) which will calm and soothe the nerves. It’s also said to ease coughs and rheumatism.
Culpeper wrote in the 17th century about making an ointment out of the leaves to heal wounds, and also recommends an extract the juice of the roots (packed with essential oils and also good in pot pourri) taken ‘snuffed up the nose’ for nervous disorders. He warns that it ‘occasions violent sneezing’ and should only be taken in small doses. I wouldn’t try it at home.
The fresh flowers are edible and can be used in salads or to add a pleasantly fragrant flavour to desserts: I like the sound of ‘primrose pottage’, or perhaps rice pudding with almonds, honey, saffron and ground primrose flowers. You can also crystallise them like violets. The leaves, too, can be eaten in salads (pick them young) and also boiled to eat as a vegetable. I haven’t tried this myself – must have a go – but if anyone has I’d be very interested to know what they taste like.
Primroses are no longer as common as they once were; the dryness of the east of the country has all but driven them out, as they thrive only in damp conditions (one of the reasons why they do so well in the West Country: they are the county flower of Devon).
But they remain woven through the history of the country quite as closely as any quintessentially English flower. Primrose Day, held each year on April 19, is the anniversary of the death of former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Apparently primroses were his favourite flower, and Queen Victoria regularly sent him posies from Osborne House (or he sent them to her: accounts vary). To this day a posy of primroses is laid at Disraeli’s statue by Westminster Abbey each year.
Incidentally – next time you look into a clump of primroses, see if you can tell whether they’re pin-eyed or thrum-eyed. This genetic diversification helps promote cross-pollination: pin-eyed flowers hold the female stigma well above the male anthers, like a green pinhead, while in thrum-eyed flowers the male anthers are to the fore and appear as an orange ring, with no central knob.