Though I have written many articles on wild primroses, Ireland has three forms of native Primula, the Primrose, the Cowslip and the false Oxlip and you might also find the introduced Oxlip as an escapee from gardens to the wider landscape .
No one doubts the provenance of one of the first heralds of spring; massed swathes of pale yellow that clothe banks, woodlands, stream-sides, road verges and meadows across the land. The primrose - Primula vulgaris, is a native wildflower that will often show its head in sheltered places well before the old year has ended, nor is it unusual to see the pretty though not so delicate flowers appear through shallow drifts of melting snow. The name primrose is from the feminine Latin derivative prima rosa meaning 'first rose', despite it not being a member of the rose family.
Here in the garden small clusters of primroses start flowering in late December but it is from mid February to mid March that the greater numbers appear. They are spreading slowly and I will lift and divide some to ensure the flowers are a source to gladden the eye as I walk around the garden in the darker days of winter.
Cowslip - Primula veris, another native perennial found most widely across Ireland from the south-eastern and eastern counties and through the midlands, yet rarer in the south-west and the north of the country. In April and May, sometimes as early as late March, clusters of elongated bell-shaped flowers of rich yellow hang from the top of a single long downy stem amid basal rosettes of wrinkled leaves that pinch abruptly to the petiole (leaf stalk) and are lightly furry on both sides.
Cowslips can be found on natural and semi-natural grasslands but are now becoming less abundant across Europe and the UK, this decline can be attributed to changes in land-use such as the loss of traditional hay–meadows. The loss of this, in combination with ongoing destruction and nutrient enrichment of permanent grasslands, even in some cases, land abandonment may also be hastening its demise. Although losses are being noticed elsewhere, recording of cowslip populations have revealed that they seem to be doing fairly well in Ireland and there is a Citizen Science project across Europe - Looking for Cowslips, which is dedicated to studying this humble flower.
I had a single cowslip in the field when I relocated here, I have introduced a few more since and there is another batch to be planted this spring to increase the small colony. Most cowslips have yellow flowers, but very occasionally you may find orange or red-flowered ones in the wild and though I planted yellow ones some of mine have flowered both orange tipped and also a rich red.
False Oxlip - Primula x polyantha is a naturally occurring hybrid where native cowslips and primroses grow together and like most hybrids the false oxlip is generally a larger plant than the cowslip. Favoured habitats are the same as the parents - open grassland, sparse woodland and roadsides with hedgerows though its range is rather scattered across the country..
The flower colour is similar to the primrose but with darker markings and like the cowslip are formed at the top of a stem amid basal rosettes of oval, crinkled leaves. The flower umbels, unlike the cowslip, are formed around the stem instead of one-sided and can be found in bloom between March and May.
Oxlip - Primula elatior, is an introduced member of the Primula family found in damp woods and meadows throughout Europe, north to the borders of Denmark and some southern parts of Sweden, east toward the Altai mountains of Russia and westward to the UK but only just. Found in some areas of East Anglia though rarely found outside of the counties of Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex and here in Ireland, it is an introduced species; found mainly in gardens and woodlands when planted.
The flowers grow atop a strong, furry stem, are pale yellow in colour and they tend to be one-sided and face in the same direction, the same as cowslips. As an early flowering perennial, oxlip like all of the species of Primula, is an important flower for insects, providing nectar for early emerging bees which will in turn pollinate the plant.
The wild primroses may be small but in ancient times they had a strong connection to the world of myth and legend as a symbol of safety and protection. Primroses were said to encourage the faeries to bless and protect the houses when flowers were placed on a doorstep or as a gateway or portal into the faerie realm when seen in large patches in the woods or meadows.
Photo credit: False Oxlip (Primula x polyantha) - Graham Calow: Oxlip (Primula elatior) - Fabrice Cahez
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