Saturday 20 January 2018

Country matters: Spring's elusive first rose is not a rambler

Country matters

Brave colours: Primroses are less abundant these days Photo: Frank McGrath
Brave colours: Primroses are less abundant these days Photo: Frank McGrath

Joe Kennedy

There are no primroses, as yet, in a place where I usually see them each year. It's the weather, you see.

I empathise with George Orwell who, in his 1946 essay Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, once appeared to have given up on spring's arrival because of the weather. But I have heard of prima rosa showing brave colours in the Boyne Valley, and await news from elsewhere.

As I struggled through the snow - Dateline: Dublin, March - to a doctor's surgery the other day (drama, but true), thoughts of spring flowers were far from my mind. Memories of looking for the first primroses in certain places year after year linger. Vivid are the roadsides in Fingal, along the stretch between the Hills Cricket Club and Skerries, which had not been savaged by the trim-and-prim landscapers.

Where flower-frosted branches of blackthorn may be glimpsed in places, careful searching may also reveal that first rose peeping through a hedge gap.

William Cobett wrote, more than 150 years ago, that the "blackthorn blows very early in the spring". Perhaps this year it is too soon to see flecked field hedges.

The primrose had its particular poet in the illustrious John Donne (1572-1631): "Upon this primrose hill/ Where heaven would distill/A shower of raine, each several drops might goe/To his own primrose and grow manna so." Last year, a reader sent me a wonderful phone image of a hill of primroses in full bloom in Co Wicklow.

In their scattered distribution with cowslips and oxlips, these signal flags of spring appear to be less abundant than in the past. Herbicidal spraying and fewer 'neglected' laneways and field banks are root causes.

But the first rose of spring is not a rambler. Like the cowslip, it produces two kinds of flower, but because there are blooms when there are few, if any, insects about, there is often no pollination.

Shakespeare in The Winter's Tale wrote of "pale primroses that die unmarried" and, as the naturalist Richard Mabey has pointed out, the plants that produce seed attract ants to the food and so rely on them to be pack- horses to make any territorial advances. Dispersal then seems to be a matter of chance.

In their wild abundance in days gone by, children gathered the flowers for posies for home and school and commercial pickers had market outlets for bridal bouquets, which was a tradition. In the Middle Ages the flowers were considered love potions and also, oddly, used as ingredients in treatments for rheumatic and gout complaints.

There are colour variants from deep yellow to pale cream and rhubarb-and- custard. The bird's eye primrose has pink flowers and is usually found on limestone land in northern areas. Where primroses and cowslips grow together - as in a rough garden where I once lived - may be found the hybrid false oxlip that is slightly hairier than the cowslip, with bigger and paler flowers. Swarms can occur near primulas and polyanthus.

Shakespeare thought the orange spots at the base of the petals were the source of their dill-like perfume - and perhaps something more potent. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, a character says: "In their gold coats spots you see/Those be rubies, fairy favours/In those freckles live their savors/I must go and seek some dewdrops here/And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear."

A good idea. Some such dewdrops I might seek to ease some of life's aches not helped by the chills of a late spring.

Sunday Independent

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