Let Us Stroll the Primrose Path of Dalliance

Let Us Stroll the Primrose Path of Dalliance

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

20190505_163700The 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.

primrose original colorThese 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.

20190505_163636In 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?

In the mists of time

It is a crisp, clear autumn morning. As I walk over a gentle rise toward The Boone House I first see, then smell, the smoke rising from the chimney, letting me know the hardwood fire has been started for our day of cooking. I have been doing this for many years now, and yet it is still a thrill to experience a sense of stepping back in time as I walk toward the house. I close my eyes as I put on my cap, and when I open them I can easily imagine the sounds of a busy 18th century homestead awaking to the demands of the day.


On the way to the house I stop at the garden to pick the herbs we will need for our menu: parsley, sage, thyme, and lovely rosemary whose scent will stay on my fingers for some time. I pick an extra bouquet to place on our table “just for pretty.”

Two other “herbies” from the area and I will be preparing a typical harvest meal at the hearth to show guests what is involved in such an undertaking. Throughout the day we talk as we cook – about our clothes, about the Boones and their lives, about gardening, and food preparation and preservation at harvest time.


The ‘receipts’ (recipes) we use are typical of the 18th century English, Welsh, and German families that lived in the house over the years, though admittedly we use rather simple, homestead dishes that are “forgiving” if we forget a step as visitors constantly ask questions and directions. Since most of our cooking days are on Sundays, we do hasten to explain that none of this would have been done on the Sabbath day as the Boones were observant Quakers. Their Sabbath meals would have been prepared the day before and taken with them to the Meeting House down the road in the beautiful Oley Valley.

Leaning over an open hearth cooking (and talking!) all day is just plain hard work, but the great reward is sitting down at the end of the day, after all the visitors have left and the gates are closed, with kindred spirits who love re-enacting. Together we enjoy the food, the stories of the day, and for just a few more minutes by candlelight as the sun sets, we remain in the mists of time.

submitted by: Courtney Stevens, Pennsylvania Heartland Unit, Mid-Atlantic District

editor’s note: Be sure to check out the website for Daniel Boone Homestead. Approximately one hour west of Philadelphia, it’s a great place to visit when traveling through Pennsylvania.