Spring has arrived at the Museum with the blooming of the primroses. In the Museum’s coppice, the pastel yellow rosettes of flowers are set off against the rustic gold of the hazel roods and steel grey of the hornbeam.
These plants emerge unobtrusively every year beneath the canopy but only burst into bloom when the cutting of the coppice lets the sunlight through. Perhaps it is appropriate that woodsmen in Hampshire used to make an ointment for cuts from primroses boiled in lard.
The flowers are associated with both Easter and May Day. At Easter they have long been used to decorate churches. A Christian folk tale common across north-western Europe tells how primroses first sprang up where St. Peter dropped the keys to Heaven. On May Day people would hang posies of primroses above their thresholds to stop witches entering their homes.
With the spread of the railways agricultural labourers’ family would earn a few extra pence by gathering primroses, tying them into bunches and sending them into the cities. Many would make sure they left some flowers on each plant from which they picked.
The medicinal use of the primrose was first recorded by Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century and has been used to treat fits, coughs, insomnia and paralysis.
“ The roots of the primroses stamped and strained, and the juice sniffed into the nose with a quill, or such like, purgeth the brain, and qualifieth the paid of the megrain.” – John Gerard, Of the History of Plants, 1597.