Sunday 25 February 2018

Country Matters: Pale roses that die unmarried

Joe Kennedy

I HAD gone to look for early primroses in the sunshine promise of a temperature rise, to a spot where I had found them last year.

But there were no long, shaggy stalks bearing blossoms, just lanceolate leaves, crinkly, tapering tightly to the plant base, sharp in the pristine morning. I had miscalculated. Last year, I had been away at this time.

Further south, there may already be shy appearances in a place where there is shelter between high banks, and where rushing water cuts a gullet over rounded pebbles, racing to where uninviting rocks remain sentinels to the spray of the heaving tide.

Spring growth here emerges along a ravine and, unexpectedly, the universal favourite wild flower peeps from a lane or through a hedge. Each year, primroses are sought in traditional places, and as a surprise can appear in newer settlements, another signal that spring has finally arrived.

John Donne (1572-1631) wrote of these early flowers: "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 scattered distribution with their sisters, cowslips and oxslips, primroses are not as universal as once they were. Landscape changes have seen headlands ploughed and hedges levelled for cattle. The push to the edge continues for the natural world of creatures and plants.

Primroses and cowslips produce two kinds of flower, and their sticky seeds arrive only after pollination. But because they bloom when few insects are about, there are times when this does not occur: Shakespeare, in The Winter's Tale writes of "pale primroses that die unmarried".

But those that produce seed attract ants to the stored food therein and, as the naturalist Richard Mabey put it, the plants have to rely on "rain splash or the packhorse of ants" to make any territorial advances.

The first rose is not a rambler then; dispersal seems a matter of chance. There was a plentiful time when they were gathered commercially for markets, but always generally by children in little bunches for school and home. Sometimes they were seen in the bouquets of Easter brides.

There are hybrids and colour variations of the flowers, from deep yellow to palest cream and rhubarb-and-custard. And swarming can occur near primulas and polyanthus.

The bird's-eye primrose has pink flowers from limestone nutrients and is usually found in northern areas. In Scotland, there is a distinctive flag-bearer with purple flower and yellow eye and adopted as the emblem of the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Where primroses and cowslips grow together, may be found the hybrid false oxlip, hairier than the cowslip and with larger and paler flowers.

The poet of the English countrywide, John Clare, called the jiggling, egg-yolk flowers 'cowslip peeps'. And Shakespeare felt the orange spots at the base of the petals were the source of the flowers' dill-like perfume: "In their gold coat spots you see/There be rubies, fairy favours/In those freckles live their savours."

Cowslips used be an ingredient of a potent country wine. Did The Bard, then, sense something powerful to be sniffed in a glass?

Sunday Independent

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