Beacon of Spring: Primula
by Rob Sproule
Let me be blunt. Our winters are dark, cold, and downright grim. Once the Christmas lights are turned off it can seem like a long way till spring.
The first flowers hitting store shelves in January are usually one hybrid or another of Primula vulgaris, or Common Primrose. Their colours are as bright and pure as crayons, with clear primary and secondary hues slicing through the winter doldrums. The word “primrose” derives from a variation of the Italian “fior di prima vera”, which means first flower of spring.
Little do most of us know, these diminutive first flowers of the year were favourites of poets William Shakespeare, John Donne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and have a centuries long history of bringing much needed colour to bleak times.
The Primrose Path
“But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads…”
-Ophelia, Hamlet Act 1, Scene 3
As she bid her brother, Leartes, farewell as he left for Paris, Ophelia coined the phrase “primrose path” to refer to a life of luxury, indulgence, and the youthful appetites of a big city. To Shakespeare, primrose represented the fleeting beauty, and sometimes recklessness, of youth.
Native to much of western and southern Europe, Primrose have bloomed unabashedly across England for centuries and, thanks to their vibrant albeit short-lived beauty, become a symbol of feminine youth and young love. In the language of flowers, a suitor smuggling an illicit Primrose bouquet into a young woman’s hands was code for “I can’t live without you.”
After a surge of popularity in the Elizabethan age, primula fell out of fashion until the sooty skies of the Industrial Revolution hunkered over British cities. The grim, often squalid urbanization led workers to seek solace in whatever way they could, and flowers from the countryside, with flowers bright enough to light up a bleak room, circulated in massive numbers.
The primula ubiquitously available in late winter are typically zone 5 (P. Vulgaris), and have very little chance of surviving our zone 3 winters. That being said, we don’t buy them to be a garden plant or any other utility other than the crisp joy their colours bring us and their silent promise of spring.
When you’re picking your primula, don’t be fooled by the siren song of open flowers. Make sure it has another strong flush of buds rising from the crown (centre). If it doesn’t, the colour won’t last long and the foliage isn’t nearly as pretty.
Any sunny spot will do; beside a window is best. Put it somewhere that people will see it; after all, it’s there to be a visual reminder of spring.
When it comes to care, think England. Keep the soil moist but not wet. If it dries out, it’s very assertive about it and will wilt quickly. As long as you catch it before the leaves are completely limp, the flowers should bounce back. Expect to have to water it every couple of days.
Avoid fertilizer. You won’t have the plant long and, even if you do, fertilizer will just inspire more leaves and less flowers.
You’re welcome to plant it outside in the spring if you like, but unless the spot is wildly protected and you baby it heading into winter, it won’t survive. Even if it does, the stress will probably make the next year’s flowers remarkably unremarkable. It’s beauty is fleeting, but that’s the beauty of it.