The primrose: herald of spring

Primrose (1)Like little drops of sunshine, the pale yellow flowers of primroses start appearing in March, adorning our fields, banks and hedgerows.   I love the way they unfurl:  buds that look like loosely-folded umbrellas open out to reveal five heart-shaped petals and a cadmium yellow centre.

Very soon, they will be joined by violets and wood anemones, celandines and wood sorrel, weaving a carpet of joyful colour.   If there are woodland fairies, this is where they love to dance!

The primrose, Primula vulgaris, is one of Britain’s best-loved wild flowers.  Its common name is derived from the Latin ‘prima rosa’, meaning ‘first rose’, and it heralds the arrival of spring, braving late snowfalls and strong winds, lighting up a woodland floor before the leaves of the trees have emerged to cast their shade.

Primroses, celandines and violets

Primroses, celandines and violets

The leaves of the primrose are lush green, deeply furrowed and wrinkled, forming loose rosettes which make a perfect foil for the delicate flowers.  The plant prefers moist ground in light shade, especially facing the morning sun.

Now, this is something I didn’t know…

There are two types of primrose flowers, apparently identical but with one important difference.    Look carefully at their centres.   In some, there is a greenish-yellow pin (these are called ‘pin-eyed’) while in others there is a slightly thicker cluster of yellow anthers (these are called ‘thrum-eyed’).

This is nature at its cleverest, because the plant has found a way to avoid self-pollination.

In the pin-eyed flowers, the stigma is at the top and the anthers, which carry the pollen, are half-way down the flower tube;  while in the thrum-eyed ones, it is the anthers that are at the top and the stigma is lower down.

When a butterfly visits a pin-eyed flower to feed on the nectar, it gets pollen stuck on the middle of its proboscis from the anthers that are half-way down the tube.  Then, when it visits a thrum-eyed flower, the pollen is perfectly placed to be wiped onto the stigma.  This also happens the other way around:   pollen from the anthers of a thrum-eyed flower sticks to the top of an insect’s proboscis, and this is then deposited onto the stigma of a pin-eyed flower.

I call that a stroke of genius!

Both the leaves and the flowers of the primrose are edible:  the flowers can be sugared for cake decoration, and the young leaves may be added to salads.   The root and flowers contain a fragrant oil, which has traditionally been used for flavouring syrup and tea.

In herbal medicine, a tincture of primrose was taken to alleviate rheumatism and gout, and the leaves were used to treat wounds.  Primrose tea is reputedly good for the nerves:  the 16th century herbalist John Gerard recommends the drinking of primrose tea in the month of May, as it is ‘famous for curing phrensie’.  (I imagine that ‘phrensie’ is an old spelling of ‘frenzy’, indicating hysteria.)

It seems a shame to go harvesting primroses for medicine – and anyway, just by looking at them, you can’t help but feel better!

The primrose is widespread throughout Britain, and further afield it occurs in southern and western Europe.  It is a popular garden plant, and nurserymen have produced many beautiful cultivars in a rainbow of colours.

Primrose, celandines and wood anemones

Primrose, celandines and wood anemones

Primula scotica;  via Wikimedia, credit Helen Baker

Primula scotica; via Wikimedia, credit Helen Baker

Scotland’s rare beauty…

Scotland has its own unique primrose:  Primula scotica, an endemic species which is restricted to coastal grassland sites in Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney.  Clusters of tiny magenta flowers are borne aloft on stalks about 4 cm tall, above silvery-green oval leaves.

Have you seen any primroses in flower yet?   Have you been lucky enough to find Primula scotica in the wild?


Plantlife Scotland
Scottish Wildlife Trust

Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf except where stated

Wood Anemone (2)You might also like to read these features on spring flowers:


  1. Enjoyed it all, pics and discussion. Refreshing read while looking at minus 9 degrees F and much snow here this morning!

  2. What a lovely, uplifting post. I didn’t know about the endemic species, or that you can eat the leaves of primroses. As you so rightly point out, just looking at primroses makes you feel better, and I feel better for reading this post. 🙂

    • That’s so nice of you to say so, Lorna, thank you! 🙂 There are some primroses poking through in our garden now, and it’s lovely to see them. They really do lift your spirits!

  3. Spring, spring, spring…such a hopeful ring! Lovely post, Jo. Hank wishes wild primroses in your path today!

  4. I was going to post about the pins and thrums, but you have written about it beautifully. I noticed our primroses out in flower about 3 weeks ago in our local churchyard, so pretty and delicate.

    • Thank you very much, Rachel. I look forward to your post – I’m sure you can bring a better botanical knowledge to the subject! I am a bit rusty about the internal workings of flowers! That’s early for primroses to be in bloom – we noticed some about a week ago. They are always a delight to see.

  5. They are one of my favourites, beautiful photos, its lovely when you come across them in the wild…..lovely post 🙂

  6. Texas boasts two primroses, too, but they are not in the same genus at yours (in fact, they aren’t even related by genus to each other). Yours are much prettier. I’m jealous, you know; quite ready to see some color again myself. 🙂

  7. I’ve never really appreciated primroses, mainly, I think, because I tend to mainly see them in planters in public spaces, or gaudy displays in parks – your photos and words make me appreciate their delicacy and their value.

    • Thank you, Andrea! Primroses are so lovely, even though they are planted everywhere, as you say. I like the coloured hybrids but I think I love the delicacy of the wild ones the best. I’m glad you enjoyed this!

  8. Wonderful!the simplicity and beauty of these flowers are also surprising me. All this beauty that is good for the spirit!Even here in Italy for me there are varieties of primroses, walking in the woods!

    • You are so right, Luciana, primroses are very good for the spirit! We are having sunny days just now, and it’s wonderful to see them in bloom – so uplifting.

  9. It’s so nice to see their fresh faces! Primula are my favorite flowers…any sort will do! Here in Vermont we are in the midst of a snow storm and so it will be many weeks before I get to see them in my gardens…but under the growlights are many seedlings growing strong!

    • They’re so sweet, aren’t they?! We’re getting our first signs of spring here now, and I hope your cold weather will start to loosen its grip, too. It must be fun to have all those seedlings coming up! I took a look at your website – what wonderful plants! Thanks for following The Hazel Tree, and I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  10. What a grand flower and a great post, Jo!

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: