First published in 1976.
The History of the Primrose and Polyanthus
The Primula family is very large and diverse. Representatives can be
found in all parts of the World though they may vary greatly in shape, size and
form, and exist in widely differing environmental, climatic and atmospheric
conditions. Many of the genus cannot be successfully grown in open ground in
Western Europe, some requiring the conditions of the Alpine House, whilst
others require heated glasshouse conditions. The family is one of great
interest, and contains so many varying species that it is impossible to
adequately deal with even one section within the scope of a short series and
therefore I have selected from the Vernale section three major sub-species
which are native to the United Kingdom, these being Primula veris, Primula
vulgaris, and Primula elatior -- commonly called the Cowslip, the Primrose, and
the Oxlip. I will consideration not only these three sub-species but also to
their hybrids, particularly Primula variabilis, or the Polyanthus, and
Fortuitous it may be that the three varieties hybridize with such ease, but for one intent on discerning the ancestry of the strains and cultivars in existence at the present time the number of hybrids creates nothing but problems! Though hybridization has been carried out by man for many years, it is insignificant to that carried out by insects in nature -- and for these latter crosses there are no records! So closely allied is the chromosome structure of the varieties, and so wide the range of hybrids produced that one is tempted to postulate that today there is no genotypically homozygous form of P. veris, P. vulgaris, or P. elatior .... to be certain, should any such exist, they must be few and far between!
The Primrose has, in its varying forms, been a popular garden flower for many centuries, but the interest in it has followed a distinct and clearly defined pattern, reaching peaks around 1570, 1770, 1870 and is undergoing a revival during the present decade (1970's). It is interesting to note that this hundred year cycle was broken in the seventeenth century which was a period of global discovery, and one which witnessed the introduction of many new plant species to England. In the years between the decades of peak interest the species moved into almost total eclipse. Fortunately the tenacity and fecundity of the Primula species has ensured the existence of many varieties, and the rate of hybridization has ensured that the 'traits' of other long lost varieties has been carried by heterozygous plants -- thus supplying the dedicated breeder with a vast supply of 'raw materials'.
Sadly many of the old cultivars have gone forever, though of course modern replicas can be created. However we do still have a wide range of 'old fashioned' plants, two which are Primula vulgaris alba plena and Primula vulgaris lilacena plena -- the double flowered white and lilac Primroses which graced the gardens of Elizabethan England. What is so remarkable about these two varieties is that neither is capable of producing seed, and the specimens we have today are nothing more than divisions of the plants which existed five centuries ago! It has often been said that the old doubles are 'weak' and 'weedy' specimens and state are inherently unviable, but how can this be true when we still have these old varieties! Provided they are planted in a soil rich in organic materials the doubles will not only grow but will thrive and flourish.
The Cowslip has never really featured in the garden, and interest in it has been for little more than its medicinal properties. Coloured forms are in existence, but have not 'caught on' which is a pity for they have much to commend them, not least a delightful, if delicate, perfume. The Cowslip is unfortunately all too often regarded as an inferior Polyanthus - no doubt this accounts for it's small following. The Oxlip has also suffered at the hand of its more impressive offspring, the Polyanthus. Primula variabilis or Primula polyantha was created from the Primrose, Cowslip and Oxlip and has quite clearly superceded all its ancestors in the horticultural world.
Both the Primrose and the Polyanthus exhibit an extensive range of colour, in fact it is true to say that there is no colour which cannot be produced --- even black and white! Modern trends in the development of the two varieties are not altogether pleasing, and in time I foresee a return to the smaller more compact plants of the past. Along with the increased colour range breeders seem to have developed large flowers completely out of proportion to the plant.
The History of the Primrose, Cowslip, and Polyanthus is surprisingly well recorded, thus indicating the popularity the plants have enjoyed. The three varieties were popular in Elizabethan times, and the Cowslip and Primrose well before. The early interest shown in them was not entirely for their beauty, for the plants were widely used by herbalists.
There is some confusion over the origin of the name 'Primrose', however it is now widely accepted that it is a corruption of the Italian 'primaverola', which in turn is a diminutive of 'fior di prima vera' meaning the first flower of Spring. The Cowslip and Oxlip owe their names to the most unseemly words 'cow slop' and 'ox slop'. With the advent of the first British Empire and the discovery of new lands with their own flora, the decline of the Primrose was heralded. Over the years the Primrose was replaced in the gardens of the wealthy by new introductions, and in time as the 'new' plants became widespread even the cottagers ousted their old favorites. Had society continued in the same style it is likely that the plants would have sunk into complete oblivion.
Ironically the Industrial Revolution led to a revival in interest, this seems anomalous, but it would appear to be the sole reason for the revival, with the rise of industrialization and the consequent development of squalid urbanization, the anomic workers drawn into the infant conurbations by the necessity of work, gained solace from their abject misery either by indulging in gin drinking, or by creating tiny gardens of plants which represented the freshness, freedom and beauty they had forsaken in search of a living. Throughout the period the plants, especially the 'Gold Lace Polyanthus' gained an immense following especially in the industrial areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands. After the 1670's the plants once more lost popularity, due largely to the improved conditions of the towns and the fact that successive generations of workers had become 'urbanized beings'.
In the I950's they once more revived and began the steady rise to popularity. At all times, even when interest reached it's lowest ebb, a handful of dedicated growers and breeders have maintained their collections. Following the Depression and the War years which gave rise to further urbanization a new form of anomie affected the city dwellers - they began to long for a 'return to nature', and took interest in the English plants which had for so long been associated with the freshness of Spring. As a result growers took up the production of the plants on a commercial scale and many excellent strains resulted.
When the Primrose (Primula vulgaris syn. P. acaulis ) was first removed from the hedgerow to the garden is unknown, what is known however is that by the sixteenth century it was widely known as 'the English Flower' on the continent. At this time both single and double flowers were known in both yellow and white. The later being either a natural mutation, or more feasibly the result of the introduction of P. acaulis balearica a white form endemic to the Balearic Isles. The nomenclature of the 'English' Primrose is in itself somewhat confusing, at various times being known as P. vulgaris, P. acaulis, and P. amoena. Coloured forms did not appear until 1656 when Primula acaulis rubra, a mauve primrose was introduced from Turkey by John Tradescant. It is debatable whether in fact there was any necessity to introduce P. a. rubra, it has been a native of the United Kingdom since the Primula was first recorded, though it was and still is rarely found, and occurs only in isolated areas. Three years before Tradescant imported P. a. rubra the plant had been grown in Paris -- whether it was from here or Turkey that Tradescant obtained his plant is unknown, though it is generally assumed the later.
Primula acaulis rubra has suffered at the hands of both growers and writers alike over the centuries, and has been known by various names of which P. amoena; P. a. Sibthorpii; and P. Sibthorpii are the most common. These names plus numerous others have created great confusion. P. acaulis rubra was used at an early date, and re-introduced by Sibthorp and Smith in I8I4 eleven years later Koch introduced the name P. amoena var. Sibthorpii. In 1842 Hoffmansegg isolated P. Sibthorpii as a separate species. Primula altaica, a separate species, has also been applied to P. acaulis rubra and to the true P. amoena!
The true P. amoena is a mauve polyanthus type plant from the Caucasus and Lazistan, which in turn may be a hybrid between P. pallasii and P. acaulis rubra. P. pallasii is a form of P. elatior which has also been known as P. altaica. To add further confusion to the matter P. altaica is not a member of the Vernale Section, but is in fact P. farinosa altaica a member of Section Farinosa. Likewise P. sibthorpii is a member of Section Farinosa. By 1640 "Tradescant's Turkie-purple primrose" was widely known and included by John Parkinson in 'Theatrum Botanicum'. At the beginning of the following century in "Institutions Rei herbariae" ,which was translated into English in serial form under the title "The Complete Herbal, or the Botanical Institutions of Mr Tournefort, chief botanist to the late French King, with large additions from Ray, Gerarde, Parkinson, and others, the most celebrated Moderns etc.,etc.,etc." ------- J.Pitton de Tournefort described Primula vulgaris rubra and extolled its virtues as "it is a rare plant, the Herb Merchants usually cut the root into several parts, to propagate it by that means as well as seed. Such is the lively nature of the flower, that it raises it's head above the Snow even in the middle of Winter, which is signified by the Turkish Apellation 'Carchichec' imparting, as 'tis said, a Snowy Flower. There are infinite varieties of the species, from the diversified Colour of the Flower." In 1665 John Rea produced "Flora, Ceres and Pomona" or "The Complete Florilege" and gave further details of the red Primrose 'the red primrose is of a newer date, more beauty and greater variety ..... the tops of the shoots and bottoms of the stalks are of reddish colour, but the greatest difference is in the colour of the riovrors, tliore being almost twenty diversities of reds ... the scarlet is the rarest of all." As early as 1648 the Oxford Botanic Garden had blue, white, yellow and purple primroses plus white doubles, though at this time both yellow and Lilac doubles existed.
The double flowering varieties were mentioned by the very earliest of writers on gardening, in 1490 the sulphur yellow double was described by Tabernaemontanus; and in 1597 John Gerard described both Primula vulgaris alba plena and Primula vulgaris lilacena plena, plants which today are rare and highly prized specimens. The umbrella name for the double varieties is generally accepted as Primula vulgaris flore-plena. The red double Primrose was first recorded in 1650, but as late as 1696 Samuel Gilbert, John Rea's son in law, stated that they did not exist because the plants he had been given as red turned out to be "only of a dull horse flesh hue" .despite the fact that in 1665 Rae had stated that the double red did in fact exist.
By 1800 the blue primrose had disappeared, assuming that the Oxford Blue of 1648 was a true blue flower, and it was not until the late 1880's that Mr. G. P. Wilson bred blue flowers from purple flowering plants, though the blue of some of these were true blue it proved to be almost impossible for Mr. Wilson to breed out the mauve ring which surrounded the eye.
In 1901 possibly the greatest 'find' was made when a small plant bearing virulent violet flowers with penciling at the base of the blossom was discovered in the Caucasus. This distinctly separate species to those already known was named "Julia's Primrose" and as Primula juliae opened the door to a whole new range of colours. P. juliae is quite distinctly a different species to those previously known. Not only is it of very dwarf habit, and the flowers held on very slender stems, but the leaf is cordate, quite unlike the leaf of P. vulgaris, P. elatior, or P. veris. In the majority of the Juliae hybrids this distinctive leaf is readily distinguishable even though the plant may be many times larger than it's Juliae parent, and bear blooms of Polyanthus habit. The intensity of colour of Juliae has had a great influence on the development of primroses since 1901 and the most famous of all Juliae hybrids must undoubtedly be Primula x Juliae 'Wanda'.
At this stage, around 1900, it is sensible to leave the small primroses and return to the trail of the Polyanthus, which like the primrose is fraught with misnomer and confusion. Before entering the Polyanthus battleground one must consider the Cowslip and Oxlip which together with the Primrose produced the Polyanthus.
The Cowslip has never been a popular garden flowers, and today is seldom if ever considered as such. As with the Primrose the Cowslip or Primula veris has a well documented history, firstly for it's medicinal properties and later for it's part in the creation of the Polyanthus. In this section it is wise to discuss also the true or 'Bardfield' Oxlip , Primula e la t i o r, and the 'false' Oxlip a hybrid between either Primula vulgaris and Primula veris, or between Primula vulgaris and Primula elatior. Very briefly the Oxlip is a larger version of the Cowslip, and the difference between the True and the False Oxlip is that the later has a wider flower, though this difference is often only slight. Unfortunately as with the nomenclature of Primula vulgaris and the coloured forms of Primrose there are many names used to describe the Oxlip, Cowslip and hybrids.
The name Primula veris itself has been used in a very ambiguous manner, at one time being used as the "....aboriginal name that held the primrose, the cowslip and the oxlip and all their children in it's vast embrace." Other names which have been applied to hybrids include P. Paxij., P. Pallasii, and Primula x anisiaca -- which gave rise to P.dipenea, P.FaIkneriana, P. caulesions and P.purpurascens. (for further confusion see Appendix II)
In addition to the English Cowslips and Oxlips there are numerous other similar forms in Europe which were introduced to the United Kingdom and played a role in the creation of the Polyanthus. Of the European forms three must be mentioned, Primula columnae a large pale yellow cowslip from the Southern AIps; Primula gaisbergensis a hybrid from Lower Austria; and Primula leucophylla a pale yellow Oxlip from the Caucasus.
Though the Cowslip never achieved popularity in the ordinary yellow belled form, it's popularity in 'abnormal' forms reached a peak in the Elizabethan times. Fortunately these forms were introduced to the Primrose and to the Polyanthus. These unusual forms are of such importance that they must be dealt with in a separate section, and at this point I will only list them by name without giving any description. The Elizabethans were very fond of these forms and gave then such interesting names as "Hose-in-Hose", 'Pug-in-a-pinner", "Jackanapes-on-Horseback", "Galligaskins" and "Franticke or Foolish".
When the Polyanthus first appeared is unknown - it is however a proven fact that a cross between the 'false' 0xlip and the Primrose results in a plant of Polyanthus form. In nature it is possible to find such plants especially so in an area where both P. veris and P. acaulis are growing side by side; in addition to the intermediates the Polyanthus type will be found, though invariably it is only when a coloured form occurs that interest is stimulated.
No reference to a plant of Polyanthus form -- Primula polyantha or Primula variabilis -- can be found until 1665 when John Rea described a "big oxlip'" which can only be a Polyanthus -- for that is all a Polyanthus is! Rea suggests that the red Oxlips or Cowslips 'some bigger' had been introduced from the continent. However as this was the time that Primula acaulis rubra was introduced it is safe to assume that the so called 'red oxlips' were the result of a cross between the native 'false' Oxlip and P. a. rubra or 'Tradescant's Turkie red'.
In 1601 Professor De L'Ecluse of Leyden University described, in a book entitled 'Rarorium Plantarum Historia', the result of a cross between P. acaulis and P. elatior as Primula veris pallida flore elatior, or the 'Larger pale-flowered Cowslip'. In 1665 the Polyanthus was first called by that name, the originator of the name being the Rev Samuel Gilbert -- the very same who in 1698 disputed the existence of a double red Primrose.' By the mid 1750's the Polyanthus was widely known, and in 1760 the Curator of the Physic Garden, Chelsea, Philip Miller wrote '....there are a great variety at present in the gardens, such as the hose-in-hose, double cowslip and all sorts of polyanthus which have been so much improved during the past fifty years as to almost equal the variety of the auricular, and in some parts of England are so much esteemed as to sell for a guinea a root."
Until the 1750's the Polyanthus, due to the dominance of the red gene, consisted only of red, and dull muddy or sepia flowers. At this date a new variation occurred, one which sparked off the interest of the workers in the industrial towns and became one of the most popular of flowers. Today this flower, the 'Gold-Laced Polyanthus' has almost disappeared, though due to the tenacity of an American hybridist a new strain has been introduced. The interest in the Gold Lace Polyanthus was immense, and remained so for almost a century, however by the early 1870's they had been discarded and virtually died out.
© John S Harrison, 1976
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