By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society
The botanical family name of the common or English primrose, Primula, comes from the diminutive of the Latin word for “first.” And the common name “primrose,” derived from prima rosa (“first rose”), is also a reference to the primrose being one of the first flowers of spring. This is not the evening primrose (Oenethera), or any of the other, more ornate, forms of Primula. This is the quintessentially English cottage garden flower.
Of course, it is then described as “vulgaris.” Sounds harsh. But this is not a matter of judgment of the primrose’s character. It’s just that, where the primrose is happy, it is very happy. It grows and spreads in abundance in cool, moist places.
This does not describe the micro-climate in most of our homes when primroses beckon so invitingly from the grocery store aisles shortly after the winter holiday season. Unless you are a very attentive indoor gardener, the best you can do is keep the little dears going long enough to be able to tuck them into the garden sooner rather than later in late winter. In its original home in western Europe, the common primrose grows wild along the sides of the roads. This has led to people digging up clumps to take away. This kind of raiding is now illegal in the United Kingdom.
These wild primroses generally display flowers of pale yellow, the color sometimes actually called “primrose,” although pink flowers are also not uncommon. There was a craze among the Victorians for breeding new and different kinds of flowers.
All parts of the common primrose are considered edible by people, and the leaves and flowers have been brewed in tea and made into wine. In these forms, the plant is believed to have a mild diuretic, anti-spasmodic, analgesic affect. Of course, a lot of this could be explained by the flowers just being so pretty. It’s worth noting, however, that the Pet Poison Hotline website warns that, due to a mild “unknown toxin,” primroses may cause gastric upset to pets.
In the Language of Flowers, the common primrose is compared to the freshness of youth, of a pretty child growing up, not yet fully blossoming with the summer. However, the aura of sweet, inviting innocence, combined with the primrose’s habit of easy, exuberant growth, has led to another significance for the primrose: the perilous Primrose Path. First coined by Shakespeare in Hamlet (1602), the phrase describes a pleasant and easy path that leads to destruction. Cheerful dalliance. I’m all for that. Will you join me?