Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

‘Spring flowers’

For at least 100 years from the 1860s it was thought that if primrose (Primula vulgaris) roots were planted upside down they would produce pink, rather than yellow, petals.
In 1869 James Britten recorded that in Buckinghamshire it was believed that ‘spring flowers’ – primroses with bright purplish flowers – could be produced by planting a primrose in cow dung [1]; polyanthuses could be obtained by placing cowslip (P. veris) roots upside down in soot. Similarly:
‘When I was about 9 or 10, I remember my father telling me that if you planted a primrose upside down it would produce red flowers. I tried doing this but the plants invariably died, so I never produced any red flowers. This was in west Dorset in about 1956 or 57’ [2].
022Such beliefs have been the subject of at least two scientific studies. In a 1928 paper, ‘On the variability and instability of the coloration of flowers of the primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the cowslip (P. veris)’, it was claimed that the belief that petal colour could be changed by methods such as those mentioned by Britten had ‘long been held by practically all country people throughout Britain’. The evidence assembled in the paper varied: some people transplanted pink-flowered wild primroses into their gardens and found that these later produced yellow flowers; others found that primroses retained their colour regardless of how and where they were transplanted, and others claimed that they were able to stimulate colour change. The writer concluded that it was possible to make a normal primrose plant produce pink flowers by planting it in rich, well-manured soil [3], but his evidence seems weak.
Five years later a second investigator concluded: ‘unless very good evidence to the contrary is forthcoming it may be assumed that the alleged change of colour does not take place’ [4].
It seems that the belief was stimulated by the fact that pink-flowered primroses are not uncommon, presumably resulting from hybridization between wild primroses and garden polyanthuses. Such hybrid plants are likely to colonise areas where the soil has been disturbed, where a hedge has been repaired or a ditch redug, leading people to conclude that during this work a root had been inadvertently upturned, creating pink-flowered plants, and providing ‘proof’ for the belief.

1. J. Britten, Spring flowers, Hardwicke’s Science Gossip, 1869: 122.
2. Streatham, London, April 1991.
3. M. Christy, On the variability and instability of coloration in the flowers of the primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the cowslip (P. veris), Vasculum 14: 89-94, 1928.
4. E.M. Marsden-Jones, Alleged change of colour in Primula vulgaris, Journal of Botany 71: 17, 1933.

Images: main, in lawn, Chard, Somerset, March 2014; inset, wild plant well away from any houses,  Woldingham, Surrey,  6 February 2015 (yellow-flowered plants nearby were not yet flowering).

Updated 7 February 2015.