The third in my series of easily confused plants features some of the UK’s favourite spring wild flowers with a long heritage of lore.
While our native species of primula are well-loved, they are not as familiar and useful as they once were. Farmers are too busy to rub primroses on their cows’ udders on May Day to encourage milk. Most people who grow primroses near their doorway have forgotten the idea that they encourage faeries to bless the household. People no longer make tisty tosties from cowslip flower heads tied into balls, stems inwards, and hang them from sticks in their dozens to tell fortunes or wave in celebration. Few people have recently tasted cowslip wine. Cowslips are not common enough, and like all UK wild flowers, they are now protected.
Why is it that we like to identify plants? To check whether it is safe or to eat or not, perhaps, or as a first step in working out how to buy one. To check if it is generally regarded by tastemakers as a weed or as a fit plant for a garden. But there’s also a great satisfaction in being able to name a plant just because we can. We feel closer to things we can name.
In April and early May, walking through fields and woods and peeking into gardens, we’ll often see plants with tiny, blue flowers that lift our spirits. They can be solitary, but more often, they are spreading.
Their pure blue flowers are classic forget-me-not style, the simplest of flower shapes with a starry look. Tiny, open flowers about as big as our smallest fingernail contain five rounded petals around a yellow, orange or white centre. But is it a forget-me-not? Perhaps it is, perhaps not.
When I first started working with roses and discovered I was going to need to distinguish between 30 or 40 pinks and know their names, I resorted to flash cards: the kind young children use to learn words. In no time at all I was well on the way to a lifetime of floral nitpicking. Is a the shape of a double flowered rose technically a shallow cup, recurved, a pompon or a chalice? That kind of thing.
So I often notice when people mistake a peony or a camellia for a rose, even if I’d have to concede that the colours and forms of their flowers can be essentially the same.