Primroses: lore and life

Every year, the progression of flowers marks the coming of spring: the first tentative growth of light brings up the snowdrops, then the celandine and daffodils and coltsfoot. But the flowers which truly mean spring to me are primroses.

Primrose lore

The place of the primrose (Primula vulgaris) in British folklore is small, and some might say insignificant. In some parts of England, it was considered bad luck to bring primroses into the house except in groups of thirteen blossoms, while in the Victorian era, it was thought that primrose flowers scattered across the threshold of your home had the power to prevent fairies from entering.

In the language of flowers, primroses had a wide range of meanings, including bashfulness, inconstancy in love, one's merits being overlooked, young love, or the message that "I can't live without you," (which strikes me as a melodramatic statement for such a demure flower!).

Primrose is very important to me personally, through its association with Blodeuwedd.

Who is Blodeuwedd?

The story of Blodeuwedd appears in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, a Medieval collection of Welsh lore and mythology, with its roots much further back in pre-Christian Welsh history.

The baby Lleu Llaw Gyffes is cursed by his mother, Arianrhod, to be without name, without weapon and without wife. His wily uncle, Gwydion, tricks Arianrhod into giving Lleu a name and a weapon, but he cannot trick her into giving him a wife. Thus, with the aid of the powerful magician and king Math ap Mathonwy, Gwydion creates a wife for Lleu out of flowers, called Blodeuwedd (which means 'flower face').

In the Mabinogion as we now have it, only three flowers are named: meadowsweet, oak and broom. But according to Robert Graves, in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, from which the Mabinogion is drawn, there is the suggestion of six more flowers woven into Blodeuwedd's creation:

Hanes Blodeuwedd

(Translated and reconstructed from The White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest by Robert Graves.)
Not of father nor of mother 
Was my blood, was my body.
I was spellbound by Gwydion, 
Prime enchanter of the Britons, 
When he formed me from nine blossoms, 
Nine buds of various kind; 
From primrose of the mountain, 
Broom, meadow-sweet and cockle, 
Together intertwined, 
From the bean in its shade bearing 
A white spectral army 
Of earth, of earthly kind, 
From blossoms of the nettle, 
Oak, thorn and bashful chestnut - 
Nine powers of nine flowers, 
Nine powers in me combined, 
Nine buds of plant and tree.
Long and white are my fingers 
As the ninth wave of the sea.

As the story progresses, Blodeuwedd develops from an automaton into an autonomous person, with her own feelings and desires. Eventually, she falls in love with another man, Gronw, and helps him to kill Lleu, so that she can be free to follow her heart. However, Gronw fails, and Gwydion turns Blodeuwedd into an owl as punishment.

Why primrose?

Many regard the story of Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronw as symbolic of the cycle of the seasons, with Lleu representing the sun of summer, Gronw the dark and cold of winter which almost 'kills' the sun, and Blodeuwedd the earth itself, flowering for Lleu in summer, but turning to the night time chase of predator and prey in winter.

Thus the flowers named for Blodeuwedd cover the entire span of full spring and summer, from primroses in April to meadowsweet which continues to flower throughout August.

When the primroses emerge, I always think of Bloduewedd, coming forth in her flowery innocence.

Practical uses

Primrose is not only very pretty, and a sign of the full coming of spring; it also has many practical uses.

N.B. Please do not harvest wild primrose, as it is under threat. It is easily grown in your garden or in a window box.

Culinary

All parts of the primrose are safe for humans to eat (although not for pets!). Old recipes for primrose include pottage (a thick soup), and desserts made with almonds, honey and saffron. The flowers look lovely in salads, and can also be crystallised for decorating cakes.

Medicinal

Mrs Grieve lists primrose's primary effects as antispasmodic, vermifuge (getting rid of worms), emetic (encourages vomiting), astringent (drying), sedative, and expectorant (bringing out mucus from the lungs). She recommends an infusion of the root of the primrose to alleviate stress-related headaches.

Culpeper, in the 17th century, has a lot less to say about primrose, mentioning it only as the source of 'an excellent salve to heal green wounds,' made from the leaves.

Gerard, however, has a great deal to say about primrose's medicinal uses. He talks of using different parts of primrose, prepared in different ways, as:

  • a treatment for some form of spring fever or mania;
  • a balm for rheumatic and arthritic pains;
  • a treatment for gout and palsy;
  • relief for convulsions and cramps;
  • a treatment for migraines;
  • alleviation of burns.

Magical

Primrose is ruled, as one might expect, by Venus, and is associated with the element of Earth. Combined with the kinds of medicinal effects it has, this suggests that primrose would lend itself to magic for:

  • releasing tension associated with new beginnings;
  • blessings for new love or newly weds;
  • gentle fertility magic;
  • grounding of frazzled or frenzied energy.

Trying it out

I had some primrose blossoming outside, so I thought I would try some primrose tea. I cut and dried flowers and leaves, then chopped them up and dried them some more, finally infusing them in boiling water for about 10 minutes.

Here is what it looked like:

The dried flowers and leaves together smelt like slightly floral, freshly bought green tea. The infusion's colour ended up a pale, straw-like yellow.

It had a delicate flavour, very similar to its scent. I found the effects to be relaxing, mildly digestive, and soporific.


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