Floral Folklore: The Meaning of Primroses

Floral Folklore: The Meaning of Primroses

The primrose is February's birth flower and a cheerful herald of spring. Its name comes from the Latin 'prima rosa', which means the "first rose" or "first flower", as it has always been one of the first flowers to bloom in winter.

The primrose is a welcome sight for animals as well as humans, providing an important source of nectar for early bees, butterflies and bugs. And, in folklore, it's an important flower for fairies...

3 Reasons to Love Primroses

Wild Primrose Image by Ira Piller

1. The classic wild primrose comes in buttery shades ranging from pale cream and delicate lemon to bright yellow, while cultivated varieties come in a colour palette of white, pink, red, purple, peach or even blue. But the one feature that unites them all? That vibrant yellow centre - a ray of sunshine in a flower. (image: copyright Ira Piller)

2. Primroses are a survivor. They thrive in many locations, from mountains and meadows to coastal areas and woodlands. They can survive an overnight frost and bloom in cool, shady corners where other plants wither.

3. Wild primroses are a native flower in Britain and Europe, and they're an indicator of ancient woodland. So if you see them you could be standing in woodland that's up to 400 years old. 

Primrose: The Flower of Fairies and Goddesses

Primrose and Robin painting by William John Wainwright

Pretty primroses are linked to several fairy myths and legends.

Long ago, the Scots believed that if you wanted to see a fairy all you had to do was eat a primrose. Others thought that if you rubbed primrose oil on your eyelids, you could see the fairies, while some Ancient Druids were convinced that standing in a large swathe of primroses gave you passage to fairyland. (image: Primrose and Robin by William John Wainwright, 1864) 

It was customary in some villages to leave primroses on the doorstep in the hope of a fairy blessing. A posy of 13 primroses, on the other hand, would protect you from evil spirits and, in Ireland, hanging a string of primroses over your door on the first three days of May would make sure only good magic entered your home and ensure that mischievous fairies couldn't gain entry.

Some farmers put primroses in their cowsheds to stop fairies stealing milk, or braided them into the manes of horses for protection. In Norfolk, women decorated their homes with large bunches of primroses (it had to be 13 or more) during laying season to guarantee a successful brood for their hens – but, in Dorset, to do so before April brought bring bad luck.

The primrose has also been linked to spring goddesses in different cultures – Brigid or St Bride in Ireland and Scotland, Olwen in Wales and Flora in Ancient Rome – were given primroses as an offering and were believed to have gowns made of the flowers or primroses tangled in their hair. 

The Healing Power of Primroses

Henry Perks Primroses Unsplash

The primrose's link to the magical realm may have its roots in the flower's healing properties. For many centuries, it was used as a herbal remedy.

The Tudor herbalist John Gerard noted that primrose tea drunk in May was a cure for "phrenzies" (anxiety, we presume), while Nicolas Culpeper upheld it as "fine a salve to heal wounds as any I know". 

The leaves, roots and petals were used in tea, poultice or ointment form to treat wide-ranging ailments from cramps and coughs to aches, pains and insomnia. In Ireland, it was also used to ease toothache.

Wild primroses were also picked for culinary uses. All parts of the plant are edible and, though the leaves taste bitter and slightly spicy, they are rich in vitamin C and were often used to make tea or were thrown into the stew pot.

The sweeter petals were used to make wines, syrups or vinegars, and added to salads and desserts or used as a cake decoration.

There's even a centuries-old recipe for Primrose Pottage, which combines primrose flowers, saffron, honey, wine, rice and flaked almonds served in small boats of already-baked pastry.

If you're tempted to try primroses, pick very carefully and a tiny amount. Please never uproot the whole plant – aside from the fact that this beautiful flower is in decline, it's illegal to pick wild flowers in the UK and the bees and butterflies need them far more than we do.

(image by Henry Perks, Unsplash)  

Primroses Inspiring Artists, Poets and Politicians

Primrose Day by Ralph Todd

The natural beauty of primroses and their welcome appearance in winter has inspired many creatives. 

Shakespeare coined the phrase the "primrose path" in Hamlet, meaning taking the easy, attractive path that will ultimately lead to a downfall. In Macbeth, he again mentions the "primrose way" as one that will lead to hell.

Mostly, however, poets and writers view primroses in a positive light. Samuel Coleridge in To a Primrose calls it a "fragrant messenger of spring" and in John Clare's poem of the same name he calls them "fairy flowers" and states he is:

"O'erjoyed to see the flowers that truly bring,
The welcome news of sweet returning Spring."


Anne Brontë agrees in her poem, Memory:

"An opening primrose seemed to me
A source of strange delight."

William Wordsworth in his poem, Foresight, says:

"Pull the primrose, sister Anne!
Pull as many as you can...

Primroses, the Spring may love them,
Summer knows but little of them."

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was a fan of primroses and, when he died on 19 April 1881, Queen Victoria sent primroses to the funeral and, later, placed a primrose wreath at his tomb.

This sparked a trend for primroses in funeral arrangements and an annual event called Primrose Day on 19 April to mark the loss of Disraeli. Victorians would observe the day by placing primrose bouquets in their windows or garlands on their doors, by wearing primrose buttonholes, or by laying flowers at his tomb. The painting above shows a young girl who has gathered a basket of primroses for the occasion (image: Primrose Day by Ralph Todd, 1885). 

This event also inspired the Primrose League, which was founded in 1883 to honour Disraeli, with the intention of spreading his ideas and continuing his political work. Members wore a primrose-shaped metal badge. The Primrose League still exists today.

Flora Botanica's Meaning of Primrose Flowers

February Birth Flower Primrose Print by Flora Botanica Store

In Victorian floriography, the primrose, like most flowers, had several meanings, depending on its colour: 

  • Primroses in general signified Youthfulness, Welcome or Young Love
  • Purple primrose – Virtue
  • Red primrose – Good and worthy qualities not appreciated by others, such as kindness.
  • To be sent a primrose in a posy or bouquet was a sign of admiration or appreciation. 

    Inspired by the primrose's associations with spring, its graceful appearance and traditional floriography, our Flora Botanica February Birth Flower Print features the following three meanings (shown right):

    • Kindness
    • Grace
    • Renewal
    Flora Botanica Personalised February Birth Flower Art Print Primrose Flowers

    What a gorgeous combination of words and what a lovely gift for anyone born in February! Alternatively, you could opt for a personalised version of our Primrose Flower Print, and we'll include the recipient's name and birth date for you for free.

    Both prints come with two different options for border colours – pink or green – and are offered framed or unframed in sizes A4 or A3.

    We hope we've given you some insight into primroses and that we've inspired you to go for a woodland walk in search of this magical flower. Maybe you'll even walk a primrose path to fairyland this month.


    Until next time, bloom where you are planted!

    Flora B x













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