Banks of the sweet primroses . . .

Yellow is the color of Spring.

And while a host of golden daffodils point their trumpets, dandelions add bright yellow sunbursts to the green backcloth of lawns (but NIMBY according to my wife), and marsh marigolds fill the local waterways with their golden cups, perhaps there’s no better symbol of the arrival of Spring than the appearance of delicate yellow primroses (Primula vulgaris).

There are over 400 species of perennial primroses in an array of colours, including white, blue, pink, red and yellow. The name primrose derived from the Latin Flor di primavera, meaning the ‘first flower of spring’.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Steph and I visited The Alnwick Garden (where we have a Friends of the Garden membership), and there, at the top of the garden in the shade of trees, was a bank of beautiful pale yellow primroses.

Primroses have long been acclaimed in folklore and literature. On one site, about Shakespeare’s favorite flowers, there was this: There are many legends and myths about primroses. According to a Scottish legend, if you want to see a fairy, you must eat a primrose. Leaving primroses on your doorstep will ensure fairies will bless your house, and putting primroses in a cowshed will convince them not to steal the milk. Not surprisingly, the flower is also known as “fairy cup”. Celtic Druids believed the flower helped ward off evil spirits and could connect us with the fairies.

Primroses symbolise youth and longevity, but there are many other meanings, too. Usually, primrose flowers are seen as representations of young love and of feeling as though you can’t live without your lover. There’s more here.

And in that context, a well-known and old folk song (interpreted below by Fairport Convention on the Angel Delight album released in 1971) Banks of the Sweet Primroses touches on some of these themes.

Besides the common primrose, there are two other common species in these islands: the oxlip (Primula elatior, left below) and cowslip (Primula veris, right), both hybridising with Primula vulgaris where conditions are right.

Primroses have a reciprocal arrangement of the anthers and style, known as heterostyly, in pin- or thrum-form flowers which are self-incompatible, thus promoting cross-pollination.

Pin-form on the left, and thrum on the right. Anthers (3) and pistil (4).

Hybrids between the primrose and cowslip (Primula x polyantha) have been selected in a wide range of colors and are very popular in gardens.

There is one primula species, Primula auricula, a native of the mountains of central Europe, that has particularly striking flowers. Enthusiasts were already selecting striped forms by the 1600s.

In the 18th century, growing auriculas became quite a fad, and so-called auricula theaters were built to display them at their best. There is a particularly impressive auricula theater at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, but was full of pelargoniums, not auriculas, as shown below when we visited in 2012.

When we visited the 100th Chelsea Flower Show back in 2013 and RHS show at Malvern in 2018 I was very struck by the displays of auriculas.

It was about that same time that Steph acquired several varieties, and although they flowered quite well, they were never displayed at their best.

That was until 2021, after we had moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne. I bought online an old bookshelf for her birthday and converted it into an auricula theater. Choosing one of the ‘traditional’ colors, I painted the outside sage green, and inside a dark grey. And here’s the end result.

Not too bad, even if I say so myself.


Spring is in the air in Worcestershire

Nestling under the eastern flank of the Malvern Hills, the Three Counties Showground is home to the annual Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Malvern Spring Festival (from 10-13 May this year), just 25 miles southwest from our home in Bromsgrove.

We were lucky enough to enjoy a day out at the festival yesterday, although somewhat marred unfortunately by a journey to the festival of almost 2½ hours, such was the volume of traffic trying to get round just 3 miles of the Worcester ring road, A4440. And the return journey wasn’t much better, taking almost 90 minutes, as we hit traffic north on the M5 due to a stranded vehicle. I can’t deny I was quite relieved to arrive home, put my feet up, and enjoy a welcome cup of tea.

Later that evening, almost half of the regular Friday night Gardeners’ World program on BBC2 was devoted to the Malvern festival, filmed the day before when it was much brighter,and far fewer visitors than on Friday. Drone footage showed us just how big the site was (we walked almost 3½ miles), and showcased many of the show gardens that we could obviously only view from ground level. It’s also remarkable just how ‘permanent’ some of these gardens appear, as though they (and their plantings) had been there for years, not just a week at most.

We didn’t see any of the Gardeners’ World presenters during our visit, but gardener and broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh was taking questions from the audience in the event tent; and later on we saw Master Chef judge John Torode waxing lyrical about the use of plants in Thai cooking.

The Royal Horticultural Society is the world’s leading gardening charity, and organizes a number of flower shows around the country between April and September each year. Of course its major attraction is the Chelsea Flower Show, that takes place at the end of May in London. It can rightly claim to be the world’s most prestigious flower show that inspires millions and leads the way in innovative garden design. We enjoyed a day there in 2013 when the show celebrated 100 years since its founding. Tickets for the Chelsea (also the Malvern, Kew Gardens, and two Gardeners’ World Live shows) were Christmas presents from our two daughters Hannah and Philippa.

The RHS Malvern Spring Festival is the second in the Society’s 2018 calendar and, set against the magnificent Malvern Hills . . . is packed with flowers, food, crafts and family fun. And yes, we did have fun. So rather than describe what we did and saw, here’s just a selection of the many photos I took during the day.

It never ceases to amaze me the lengths that almost all growers and exhibitors go to, bringing plants in flower from all seasons, even though it’s late Spring. Plants like daffodils and tulips that flowered in our garden at least a month ago were exuberant. Summer flowering plants like sweet peas and so many others were displayed in all their glory. In some ways, we should have gone into the huge floral show marquee from the outset, rather than exploring to the far corners of the show ground. It seemed just so commercial, with booths offering every sort of gardening equipment, clothing, and almost anything to do with gardening (or not in some instances).

But faith was restored once we’d entered the floral marquee and I was able to breathe in the beauty of all the fabulous displays of botanical beauty.

Among my favorites were the auriculasPrimula auricula, that come in a huge range of colors. Some are covered in a powdery coating called farina.

And I can never go to a flower show without seeking out the tulips. Maybe I should have been around during the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century.

So after my early ‘disappointment’ that the Malvern was all about commercialism, I think we must have spent at least half of our time wandering around the various flower display marquees.

Having now been to two RHS and two Gardeners’ World Live (GWL) shows, I’m not sure I can agree with Monty Don (lead presenter of Gardeners’ World) that Malvern is a real jewel. He always waxes lyrical in his praise, as do the other presenters on that program. Yes, it’s a nice show, but I think the standard of displays is unquestionably higher at Chelsea, and also at GWL. Maybe my perspectives were jaundiced by the horrendous journey we had to Malvern. I was exhausted before we even began to look around.

Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable visit, and a lovely Christmas present from our two daughters and their families.