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.