Primrose signals start of growth
Published 17/02/2013 | 04:00
PRIMROSES are scarce, unlike long-tailed tits which this year are being widely noticed, a miracle of tiny birds in a remarkable recovery. In one place where there is shelter between banks, widening and narrowing, rushing water cuts a gullet exposing rounded pebbles and races through the driving rain to where rocks remain sentinels to the wild and wasteful ocean.
Spray spumes as if a gasping beast were struggling from the sea. The wind gusts whip and drag. When it is calmer this is a place to cast for bass but care is still needed climbing and stepping.
Spring growth creeps along a ravine with flower-frosted branches of blackthorn and a careful look may be rewarded by a glimpse of a beauty peeping from a laneway or through a gap in a hedge.
Year after year primroses are seen where they are bound to be, a reminder that spring has arrived. William Cobett wrote 150 years ago of the thorn of the plum kind that it "blows very early" but the primrose, too, is in sheltered places.
John Donne (1572-1631) sang of these prima rosa first-
-lings": "Upon this primrose hill/ Where heaven would distill/ A shower of raine, each severall drop might goe/To his own primrose and grow Manna so."
In their scattered distribution with their sisters, cowslips and oxlips, these universal tokens of spring strike memory chords of less frenetic times and leave us to ponder that this much-loved flower is less abundant than in the past.
Primroses and cowslips produce two kinds of flower, but because they bloom when few insects are about there is often no pollination. Shakespeare wrote in The Winter's Tale of "pale primroses that die unmarried".
But those that do produce seeds attract ants to the stored food and, as the naturalist Richard Mabey put it, the plants have to rely on "rain splash or the packhorse labour of ants" to make any territorial advances. Dispersal seems to be a matter of luck.
Where soil is rich and damp, for generations primroses were picked by children to sell sometimes in little bunches or be featured in the bouquets of Easter brides.
There are hybrids and variations in colour from deep yellow to palest cream to rhubarb-and-custard. The bird's eye primrose has pink flowers and is more likely found on limestone soil in more northern areas.
And when primroses and cowslips grow together may be found the hybrid false oxlip, that is slightly hairier than the cowslip with larger and paler flowers.
The poet of the English countryside, John Clare, called the jiggling, egg-yolk flowers "cowslip-peeps" and Shakespeare thought the orange spots at the base of the petals were the source of the flowers' dill-like scent. "In their gold coat spots you see/Those be rubies, fairy favours/In those freckles live their savours."
Did he know something more? Cowslips are also an ingredient of a powerful home-made wine!