The name Primrose comes from the Latin Prima Rosa, the ‘first rose’ referring to the spring flowering period of the plant. It should be noted that there is no botanical connection between the species Rose and Primrose. Primroses have pale yellow flowers with five petals, their leaves are wrinkly and taper towards the leaf stalk. The leaves can grow to 15 cm long. Primroses grow in open woodland and on embankments and are clump forming plants which spread overtime and can provide ground cover. Due to the decline of these habitats through human influence Primroses are now protected by law. Picking primrose flowers, or removing plants from the wild is prohibited in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, Section 13, part 1b.
Primroses in Folklore
There are two branches of primrose folklore, the first associates the plants with gateways to fairyland. The second branch of primrose folklore is to do with bringing luck to those who keep chickens.
Touching a rock with a posy of primroses is supposed to open a doorway to fairyland; however, if you use the wrong number (the exact number varies in different versions) of flowers this can also cause a fairy curse upon you. Similarly Hanging primrose flowers outside your house is an invitation to fairies to come in.
The association of primroses with chickens appears to come from the similar colours of the flower and young chicks. which would be around at the same time of year.
In Victorian times it was common to plant primroses on the graves of children, in part because of their early flowering in the spring. A strange folktale which persists to this day says that if you plant a primrose root upside-down the plant will bear red flowers.
Primroses in George MacDonald’s Fantasy
MacDonald uses primroses and other spring flowers in Lilith to suggest resurrection, this has similarities to the symbolism of planting primroses upon children’s graves.
I lay at peace, full of the quietest expectation, breathing the damp odours of Earth’s bountiful bosom, aware of the souls of primroses, daisies and snowdrops, patiently waiting in it for the Spring.
Primroses are one of the varieties of flowers which are occupied by the fairies of Phantastes, primroses are named as a constituent part of the bountiful wild landscape of Lilith, and they appear in Cross Purposes, Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind and The Wise Woman; or, the Lost Princess.
This Valentines Card from George MacDonald to his wife Louisa features hand painted images of primroses. The poem refers to primroses as a symbol of hope and the spring. The card is currently held by the Aberdeenshire council archives. A transcription of this previously unpublished poem penned by MacDonald can be found below this image.
Love, the cold of winter’s past
Why should we be cold?
The trusting primrose comes at last
Won’t you trust, before we’re old.
If you’ll trust me I’ll be tender;
Tender as the coming spring;
And though my worlds be poor & slender
Some can love who cannot sing.
This trail has been developed by Rebecca Langworthy with editorial assistance from Derek Stewart, Mark Patterson and Oliver Langworthy.
For more information on Primroses in the UK see Plantlife
For Primroses in folklore and tips on identification see Kathy Keeler’s Blog The Wandering Botanist
Phantastes is available here 1894phantastes
Lilith is available here lilithromance00macduoft
Cross Purposes, can be found in this collection of MacDonald’s Fairy tales lightprincessoth00macd
Princess and the Goblin is available here princessgoblin00macd
At the Back of the North Wind is available here At The Back Of The North Wind
Audio books of the following texts are available free of charge via LibriVox
The Wise Woman; or, the Lost Princess. is available here
Phantastes is available here
Lilith is available here
The Princess and the Goblin is available here
At The Back of the North Wind is available here
George MacDonald’s Scotland is Supported by The Research Institute of Scottish and Irish Studies https://www.abdn.ac.uk/riiss/ The University of Aberdeen https://www.abdn.ac.uk/and the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS): www.bavs.ac.uk