Top: Evening Primrose flowers growing in the fairy section of a witch’s garden
Thinking of you while out for a ramble
Down by a cold frosty stream
Set down on a bed of hemlocks and primroses
And gently I fell into a dream
I dreamed I saw a pretty fair maiden
Such beauty I’d never saw before
Her dress was bound round with hemlocks and primroses
So green was the mantel she wore
Her hair was of a dark brown color
Her teeth was as ivory so white
Her eyes they shined like sparking diamonds
Or stars than shine on a cold frosty night
I drew her near then I awakened
With two empty arms and you on my mind
Heaven seemed so near while I was dreaming
It hurts to know you left me behind
Hemlocks and Primroses, Ralph Stanley
The Primrose flower is traditionally one of the first signs of spring. In folklore, it’s known to be a conduit to the world of faerie, and also the otherworld, as a symbol for young life cut short.
Primrose flowers come in a wide variety of colors, and in England, Ireland, Europe and parts of north America, are blooming madly, along with oxlips and cowslips, while most other plants are barely awake from a long winter’s nap.
A perennial, though they self seed so well they’re often treated as an annual – they grow 4 to 12 inches tall and wide, with oval shaped leaves about three inches long, growing in clumps low to the ground. Primrose flowers have a light, airy scent, and vary from one to two inches across, with an eye in the middle whose color differs from that of the petal. They’re typically pale yellow when found in nature, but pink and white are also common.
In nature they’re usually found in the woods, along streams, under bushes and in the shade of hedgerows. The forest floor, thick with humus rich soil is the ideal habitat for Primrose flowers, where winters are mild.
The name Primrose in Latin means prima rosa, or first rose, though it’s no relation to the rose. In Irish it’s called sabhaircín.
On Primrose flowers and the death of a maiden
Sweets to the sweet, farewell,
I hoped thou should’st have been my Hamlet’s wife –
I thought thy bride bed to have decked sweet maid,
And not to have strewed thy grave.
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
When I am dead, good wench
Let me be used with honour, strew me over
With maiden flowers.
Henry VIII, William Shakespeare
In Shakespeare’s time there was a form of anemia which often proved fatal, and seemed to afflict young maidens especially. Known as the Green Sickness as it gave the victim a yellow green complexion, or Maid’s Malady, it was thought that after death the lady would turn into primroses. If a woman died unmarried, a garland was made with primroses and other spring flowers as a sign of her purity, cut down in the springtime of life. It was forbidden to pluck flowers from the garland, and instead the were left to drop apart naturally, and then buried in the churchyard.
It was also customary to cover the bed of newlyweds with flowers, Primrose in particular. When a person died unmarried, the same custom applied to the corpse, where the grave was referred to as the nuptial bed. This is reflected in the traditional song, I Courted A Wee Girl or The False Bride:
So dig me a grave, and dig it down deep
And strew it all over with primrose so sweet
And lay me down easy, no more for to weep
Since love was the cause of my ruin.
On Primrose flowers and their attraction to, and protection from fairies
The Irish have a long tradition with Primrose flowers, and it’s said that those visiting the Otherworld, or Tír na nóg brought back Primrose as evidence that they had actually been there. It was also believed that the keys to Tír na nóg were Primrose or Cowslip.
Druids were known to carry Primrose flowers during some of their rituals, to protect them from evil. Primrose blooms freely in Ireland, found in hedgerows, pastures and of course, wooden glades, which Druids held sacred. Druids also used Primrose oil as a purifying ointment before rituals.
The Celts believed that a patch of Primrose growing wild could be a gateway to the realm of faerie. A posy made of Primrose, touched to the surface of a rock could open the portal.
If you wished to ask the blessing of the fairies for your home and those in it, you placed Primrose flowers on the doorstep. Hanging Primrose outside the house was considered an invitation for fairies to enter. And it was thought that eating Primrose allowed you to see fairies.
Perhaps the holiday most associated with fairies is Beltane, or May Eve. Being the flower of love (and quite often associated with wantonness, along with Beltane itself) and a good luck token, Primroses, along with yellow gorse shrubs were often laid across the threshold to welcome the arrival of the first day of Spring.
In earlier times, fairies were quite often creatures to be feared, and as they were often most active around Beltane, special precautions were taken. Primrose flowers were often used to ward off denizens of the realm of faerie, rather than trying to attract them. In the National Folklore Collection in University College, Dublin, there’s a bit of verse from county Kerry in Ireland relating to Beltane and fairies:
“Guard the house with a string of primroses
on the first three days of May.
The fairies are said not to be able
to pass over or under this string.”
As butter making season began in May in Ireland, to encourage milk production, farmers would rub Primrose on the udders of cows on Beltane. And in contrast to the practice of laying Primrose on your doorstep to ask the blessing of fairies, it was also thought to keep them from stealing the butter.
Another animal association with Primrose flowers is that of chickens. It was thought to cause bad luck to bring Primroses into the house in early spring, when chickens are first laying eggs. Fewer Primroses in the spring were also thought to be a harbinger of fewer eggs.
The medical uses of Primrose flowers from the middle ages and beyond
Healing properties were thought to abound in Primrose, flowers being used both fresh or dried, and the root as well which was used as a dried herb.
In the middle ages it was used for gout, rheumatism, paralysis and an infusion of the root was used for toothaches, the latter a belief which carried on in Ireland (by rubbing the tooth with the flower for two minutes.
The seventeenth century British botanist Nicholas Culpeper wrote “Of the leaves of Primrose is made as fine a salve to heal wounds as any I know.”
A remedy collected in Dorset said the Gypsies used Primrose as a cure of skin problems, and said to boil three primrose leaves in a pint of water and then drink the water. Similarly, a concoction of Primrose and pig lard was used to create a salve for burns. It was also used to cure jaundice, and mixed with cowslip, an ointment for wrinkles and facial spots.
Tea made from Primrose was a treatment for insomnia in county Cork, in Ireland.
Dried primrose roots strained through milk was used to treat the cough of horses by inhaling, and one would think for people as well.
Evening Primrose oil, a favorite of expectant mothers wasn’t known in early days, as it was native to the Americas, rather than Ireland and England.
Growing Primrose in a witch’s garden
Primrose flowers grow in a surprisingly wide variety of situations, from shade to sun, wet to dry, though it prefers humus-rich woodland sites.
It grows best as well in soils similar to woodlands – well drained, moist and fertile. When planting, think of it in the foreground with taller spring bulbs behind, along a path or stream, and even in rock gardens. They are sometimes most effective grown in patches and clumps, as they do in nature. It’s been my experience that this is easy enough to do, as they often reseed themselves this way in areas where I formerly planted them. They can also be grown in containers.
Seeds can be collected in late summer or early fall, and stored in a cool dry place. Ideally, seeds are sown in an equal mixture of soil, sand and peat moss in the winter, either in a cold frame or indoors. Like other seedlings, once they have their second or third set of true leaves, they can be transplanted outside.
The safest bet is to plant them in lightly shaded areas, with soil rich in organic matter, four to six inches deep and six to twelve inches apart. Keep Primrose flowers moist – adding a layer of mulch to help them retain water, though it’s safe to water less frequently with the approach of the autumn equinox.
The first year sees modest blooms, with the second bringing a more bountiful display.
Plucking spent blooms and dead leaves encourages new growth and keeps your Primrose flowers tidy.
Prepare them for winter by covering with evergreen boughs.
Primrose flower’s American cousin, Evening Primrose
Primrose is often confused with Evening Primrose, a different species of wildflower which is often seen as a weed. As a result it goes by a variety of names, including King’s Cureall, night candle, fever plant, night willow herb, scabish, sun crop, scurvish, wild beet.
Primrose is great for moon gardens as it blooms in the late afternoon and goes through the night, before closing up in the heat of the following day. The best part about Evening Primrose in your moon garden is that they appear to slightly glow in the dark. It was believed that fairies retrieved the dew from Evening Primrose to make potions, so it’s a great addition to fairy gardens as well.
It’s also very bee friendly, and its night blooming habit attract species of moths you’d seldom see without it.
A description of Evening Primrose
Evening Primrose blooms are cup shaped with four petals, typically yellow, pink, white or purple. The leaves spiral around the stem and are lance shaped, serrated and dark green with reddish veins.
As noted earlier, Evening Primrose is identified with the Americas, though there are a few species native to Europe.
Medicinal use of Evening Primrose in a witch’s garden
Evening Primrose is often used by women to treat hormonal imbalances, PMS and trouble conceiving. Pregnant women use it to ripen their cervix leading up the childbirth. Some believe it reduced the risk of breast and other cancers, though scientific evidence for this and much of the flower’s claims is lacking.
Like regular Primrose flowers, Evening Primrose is used for skin issues, such as eczema and rosacea, and to heal wounds when the entire plant is crushed and made into a poultice.
It’s also thought to encourage hair growth.
The entire plant was used by native Americans, as an early appetite suppressant and as a stimulant to get slovenly tribes people up and moving. A concoction made from the roots was used to treat boils, as well as piles.
Evening Primrose is not without its dangers though. Pregnant women shouldn’t take it during the first two trimesters, nor should epileptics or schizophrenics. It can also disrupt anticoagulants.
Magical Use of Evening Primrose flowers
The noted magician Eliphas Levi was aware of the connection between Evening Primrose and moon gardens and recommended it to decorate altars for ceremonies that took advantage of the power of the moon … “On Monday you should wear a white robe with silver ornaments, with a collar of three rows consisting of pearls, crystals, and selenites; a tiara yellow with the letters of Gabriel in silver. The proper perfumes are those of camphor, white sandalwood, amber, and cucumber seeds; the garlands for the altar should be of armoise (query, mugwort, artemisia), evening primrose, and yellow ranunculus. Avoid with care anything of black colour; use no cup or vessel of gold, silver only, or clear white china or pottery. The same hours as before mentioned for the Sun, but use rather the night hours.”
A tea made from the whole plant is thought to improve beauty, and help attract lovers.
In keeping with it’s lunar nature, the planet associated with Evening Primrose is the Moon, and its goddess is Diana.
How to grow/germinate Evening Primrose
Evening Primrose is a snap to grow in the right parts of the country, which are extensive. Plant the seeds with a light covering of soil in a sunny area, and keep them watered and they should be up within about four weeks. Quite often however, they don’t bloom their first year, but will afterwards for years to come.
Some Evening Primrose are perennials, but even annuals reseed themselves easily enough, so give them a space where they can take over and where you’re sure you want them. If you don’t want them to reseed, clip off the heads as the blooms begin to wither.