Prima rosa – the first rose of the year, according to medieval scholars, is our common primrose Primula vulgaris. It flourishes in old grasslands, hedgerows and woodlands from February to May.
Primrose flowers are usually pale yellow with a darker yellow eye in the centre. They have lines or honeyguides on the petals reflecting ultra-violet light which, although invisible to us, is seen by insects and directs them to the nectar in the base of the lower tube.
Many plants have special mechanisms to ensure cross-pollination. Primroses have two types of flowers – thrum-eye (above left) and pin-eye (above right) – which grow on different plants. Seeds are only produced when one type of flower has been pollinated by pollen from the other type. The structure of the two flowers is neatly arranged so the visiting insects transfer the right pollen to the right stigma.
As a long-tonged insect reaches for nectar in a pin-eye flower, pollen rubs onto the middle of its proboscis. If the insect then visits a thrum-eye flower, this pollen is at just the right level to rub off onto the short thrum-eye stigma (female part). At the same time, the insect’s head and base of its proboscis are covered with more pollen from the thrum-eye stamens at the top of the flower. When the insect next visits a pin-eye flower, this pollen is in the right position to rub onto the tall pin-eye stigma.
If that isn’t enough, the primrose has another mechanism to ensure cross-pollination. The pollen grains of thrum-eye flowers are large and only fit onto the surface of a pin-eye stigma. Similarly, the smaller pollen grains of the pin-eye flower only fit the surface of the thrum-eye stigma.
The Primrose is attractive to bumblebees and, since the flowers say open at night, it welcomes moths as well. For many primroses, however, the main pollinating agent is the bee-fly (above), a robust furry fly with a remarkably long proboscis capable of tapping the flower’s deep nectaries.
The fact that many spring flowers are pollinated by moths, flies and beetles, explains why white and yellow ones flowers are the main ones to be seen in early spring. These insects are not particularly sensitive to the red-blue (and ultra-violet) spectrum, so they don’t need these extra colours.
Primrose over-winters as rootstock, with all the nutrients made by the leaves retreating into an underground root for the coldest months.
Some primroses in the woods of south Wales have pinkish flowers, and in some plants the flowers grow on a common stalk instead of all springing separately from the base of the plant. With such variability existing naturally in wild primroses, it is not surprising that gardeners have seized on the opportunity to single out oddities – the long-stalked or large-flowered, or brightly coloured mutants which, by hybridisation with cowslips and oxlips, have given birth to the enormous range of polyanthus varieties we see in gardens today.
Like many common and easily recognised plants, the primrose has been put to numerous uses. Its flowers were recommended as a flavouring in a 17th century recipe for minnows fried with egg yolks, and vast quantities of primrose and cowslip blossoms into country wines and vinegar. Primrose leaves were boiled with lard in Medieval times to make an ointment for cuts.
I probably wouldn’t have known about this except that my mother and her twin sister had Primrose as their middle name. Apparently, when they were born, the midwife told Grandma that she would have to call one of them Primrose as it was 19th April – Primrose Day. Queen Victoria initiated Primrose Day in 1881 to commemorate the death of Benjamin Disraeli – her favourite politician – who wrote that he liked ‘primroses so much better for their being wild: they seem an offering from the fauns and dryads of the woods’.
Record your sightings of this plant (and any other species you can see around you – try for a minimum of five) on the West Wales Biodiversity Information Centre recording system (if you are in West Wales) or on iRecord.
Other easy-to-ID species seen alongside Primroses in Pembrokeshire