Sunday 16 December 2018

Country Matters: Late primroses show spring faces

SPRING IS IN THE AIR: English poet John Donne spoke glowingly of primroses
SPRING IS IN THE AIR: English poet John Donne spoke glowingly of primroses

Joe Kennedy

After the snow had gone I had looked for emerging primroses, searching for the tell-tale wrinkled leaves creeping bravely in sheltered corners. I was disappointed.

But last week they were there, better late than never, and also in another place where primulas had come to blossom during those flaky days of chill.

So, how late is spring, then? We will know in the Lord's good time.

That hard weather cocktail, spilling over like the shaking hand of an unsteady host, has departed - though on many days a gloomy ghost still retains its ghastly grip of cloud and rain.

My prima rosa memories have been cluster sightings on laneway banks in the sunny south-east where rushing waters cut a gulley over smooth stones and sharp rocks clothed in padded moss within earshot of the sea like sentinels of Shakespeare's "wild and wasteful ocean".

Primroses (prima rosa) peep through hedge gaps, along lanes and even well-used country roads where they show their faces.

They are a marvel of endurance, surviving the strimmers and hedge-cutters to deliver their message of spring. John Donne (1572-1631) sang: "Upon this primrose hill/Where heaven would distil/ A shower of raine each severall drop might goe/To his own primrose and grow Manna so."

Both primroses and their sister cowslips produce two kinds of flower and their sticky seeds arrive after pollination. But, because they bloom when few insects are about, there are times this does not occur.

Shakespeare, in The Winter's Tale, writes of "pale primroses that die unmarried". Those that produce seeds attract ants to the food stored therein 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 is a matter of chance.

Years ago, children gathered the flowers on their way to school for home and school displays and once they were also picked commercially, believe it or not, and were popular additions to Easter wedding bouquets.

There are hybrids and colour variations, from deep yellow to palest cream to rhubarb-and-custard. The bird's-eye primrose has pink flowers from limestone nutrients and, where they and cowslips grow together, may be found the hybrid false oxlip, hairier than the cowslip and with larger and paler flowers.

With their delicate dill-like scent, cowslips used to be an ingredient for a potent country wine.

Shakespeare (again!) thought the orange spots at the base of the petals were the source of the perfume: "In their gold-coat spots you see/Those be rubies, fairy favours/In those freckles live their savours."

Did he know how powerful it could be, swished about in a goblet? As a hard-working wordsmith and actor, I'm sure he and his pals sampled a tincture or two.

Lesser celandines, companions of the primrose, and Wordsworth's favourites, are true yellow-helmeted sentries of the roadsides, bravely opening their faces, whenever the rain has retreated and the sun doth shine once again.

Sunday Independent

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