Primroses and primulas aplenty

Primrose by Elizabeth Lawson, 2019. Reaktion Books Ltd.

To the uninitiated, it may seem rather improbable that anybody can write 288 pages about the primrose. After all, whilst it may be understood that primrose is a corruption of the Latin phrase prima rosa, the first flower of spring, how much more could possibly be said to justify a full-length volume dedicated to this flowering plant? Well, such individuals are clearly not familiar with Reaktion Books’ Botanical series. For, if they were, they’d know how titles in that collection take a seemingly single plant and develop it into something much bigger, as has been successfully done for rose, birch, palms, and sunflowers. And I’m very pleased to say that Elizabeth Lawson’s Primrose is a most fitting addition to that blossoming plant book family. So, to allay any lingering concerns – and by way of a ‘spoiler alert’ – there’s much more to primrose/Primrose than meets the eye.

For example, although primrose may be used in a quite specific way to refer to the common primrose [Primula vulgaris], it can also refer more generally to that flower or cowslip [Primula veris] or even oxlip [Primula elatior]*. And, that’s just for starters. To that must be added the auriculas, those most “man-made of flowers” (p. 124) that “offer the broadest and most surprising colour palette in the floral kingdom” (p. 139) – and which are so curious and iconic that they warrant a whole chapter to themselves in Primrose. And then there are the numerous Primula species known as polyanthuses [the “polychrome princess of the petrol pump” (pp. 11, 110)], and candelabra primulas. In fact, world-wide, there are 450 – 500 species [p. 21] in the genus Primula (and maybe as many as 530 – p. 68) – and probably countless cultivated varieties, and forms. So, for the primrose of the book’s title read the genus Primula.

As has become typical of a Reaktion Books’ Botanical series title, Primrose will provide no end of fascinating insights into both the flower, and of the world of the people who have fallen under its spell, particularly those intrepid ‘plant collectors’ who sought new species of Primula in its ancient Sino-Himalayan homeland. But, so adventurous were these individuals who sacrificed so much in their various botanical quests that the epithet ‘collector’ is entirely inappropriate to convey the trials and tribulations they endured during their travails in such far-flung lands as Tibet, China, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Nepal. Much of this extreme botanising was to grace the gardens of England – and elsewhere – so their owners and visitors could experience something of the exotic and attempt to quench the almost-insatiable horticulturalists’ thirst for novelty and beauty.

In Primrose you’ll also: learn that the lifespan of a primrose (and cowslip, and oxlip… **); have your word power increased by introduction to such words and phrases as gardening maven (p. 108), wharfingers (p. 130), hedgewitchery (p. 222), and nervine (p. 225); discover the 6 official florists’ flowers (which maybe includes … a primrose)(p. 130); learn of a charming Primrose Foster Parent programme in Japan (yes, where people act as a foster parent to cultivars of Primula sieboldii) (p. 166); be reminded that many writers have used primroses as “transformative metaphors” (p. 168); and be intrigued to find that John Ruskin [English “artist, critic, pundit on aesthetics and ethics, thinker, and seer” who challenged the moral foundations of Victorian Britain] categorised poets into three classes on the basis of how they viewed the primrose (p. 177). Not to mention discovering the intriguing etymology of thrum (pp. 61/2) and cowslip (p. 218). Certainly, Primrose is as quirky – and that’s a good thing! – as any other title I’ve read in the Botanical series from Reaktion Books.

You can’t have a book about primroses – or any flower for that matter – without pictures to accompany the text. Appropriately, Primrose is abundantly illustrated with 109 illustrations, of which 89 are in colour. But, if you’d like to see even more primroses, then why not check out the author’s primrose collection on Pinterest? And those gorgeous illustrations are liberally scattered amongst ten chapters with intriguing title such as: Mr Darwin’s Primroses; The Plant Hunter’s Primrose; The Well-bred Primrose; Cult Primroses from the East; and The Beneficial, Versatile, Influential, Positive Primrose.

Finally, and for good measure, Elizabeth Lawson is the Vice President of the American Primrose Society; what better credentials for writing this book can there be? And it is clear from the content of Primrose that she loves her primroses ***.


Reaktion Books’ Botanical series continues to impress. Primrose is yet another triumph to add to the growing collection. This is a well-written, profusely illustrated, plethora of primulacean pulchritude, anecdotes, and cultural history: Read it!

* And here you’d be in very good company because the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus considered all three of these to be one species (!). And explains why, for such well-known and long-established members of the European flora, only one of this trio – Primula veris L., the cowslip – has the authority of the Scandinavian plantsman in its binomial.

** No spoiler from me here; read the book!

*** For those who like to know a little more about the author’s inspiration for writing this book, see pages 21 – 24 of the Spring 2019 issue of the American Primrose Society’s newsletter.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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