Snow, falling the previous night, has partly buried these Primula irregularis flowers, growing near Tharepati, Helambu, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Frozen waterdrop, hanging down from a Primula sessilis flower, Dodi Tal, Asi Ganga Valley, Uttarakhand, northern India. Snow, which fell on the plant the previous evening, partly melted, but froze again during the night. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primrose, cowslip, oxlip – these names all refer to members of the genus Primula. This large genus, comprising about 500 species, is native to temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere and southern South America, and also to tropical mountains in Ethiopia, Indonesia and New Guinea. A core area is Central Asia, China, and the Himalaya, which is home to almost half of the species.
The generic name is a diminutive of the Latin prima (’first’), referring to the early flowering of several species. Many of these plants are indeed very hardy, as seen on the pictures above.
The name primrose is from the Latin prima rosa, meaning ‘the first rose’, although primroses are not at all related to roses.
According to some authorities, the name cowslip is a corruption of an Old English word, cuslyppe, meaning ‘cow dung’. This probably refers to the favoured habitat of the common cowslip (Primula veris), namely dry slopes, grazed by cattle. Others claim that the word is a corruption of cow’s leek, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word leac, meaning ‘plant’.
It has been said that the name oxlip, which is a corruption of ox and slip, refers to the fact that oxlip, like cowslip, often grows on cattle grazing grounds. This may be a wrong presumption, as true oxlip (Primula elatior) – at least in the northern part of its distribution area – mainly grows in forests.
The Alps alone are home to 25 species of primrose. A selection of these may be studied on the page Plants: Flora of the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Primula elatior True oxlip
True oxlip is found throughout Europe, northwards to Denmark and southern Sweden, and in northern Asia, eastwards to the Altai Mountains. It mainly grows in hardwood forests, where it blooms before foliation of the trees. In the Alps, subspecies intricata is found in open, grassy areas at high altitudes.
True oxlip, Funen, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Subspecies intricata, photographed near Grossglockner, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primula farinosa Birdseye primrose
This fine little plant has a very wide distribution, from northern Europe across northern Asia, with isolated populations in the mountains of southern Europe. The specific name is derived from the Latin farina (‘flour’), alluding to the fine grains on the stem.
Birdseye primrose often forms large populations, as in this picture from a littoral meadow on the island of Bornholm, Denmark. The blue flowers are common butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Birdseye primrose, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primula glutinosa Sticky primrose
This plant has stiff, upright, serrated, glutinous, and fleshy leaves. Its flowers are bluish-violet, the sepals covered by dark bracts. It is found in the central and eastern Alps, where it often grows at high altitudes, up to 3,250 m. The specific name is from the Latin gluten (‘glue’), alluding to the sticky glands on the leaves.
Sticky primrose, Stubach Valley, Hohe Tauern, Austria. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primula minima Least primrose
This species is easily identified by the rather large, deeply cut petals and the diminutive leaves. It is quite common in the eastern half of the Alps, growing at altitudes between 2,000 and 3,000 m.
Least primrose, photographed in Grossglockner area, Austria. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primula veris Common cowslip
A very common species in large parts of Europe and western Asia. The specific name is the genitive case of ver (’spring’), referring to the flowering time of this species.
Popular names include key flower, Herb Peter, and Our Lady’s keys, the first two referring to the inflorescence, which resembles a bunch of keys, the emblem of St. Peter. According to legend, St. Peter heard that some people were trying to enter heaven by the back door, instead of the front gates, which were guarded by him. Hurrying towards the back door, he dropped his keys, which took root and became cowslips. German names of this species include Echte Schlüsselblume, meaning ‘true key flower’, and Himmelsschlüssel, meaning ‘keys of heaven’.
In Norse mythology, the flower was dedicated to Freya, called the Key Virgin, a goddess associated with love, beauty, and fertility. When the heathens converted to Christianity, the plant was instead dedicated to Virgin Mary, hence the name Our Lady’s keys.
Common cowslip has been utilized medicinally for hundreds of years. This usage is described on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), a mischievous puck, or spirit, Robin Goodfellow, meets a fairy, asking her what she is doing. She says:
And I serve the fairy queen
To dew her orbs upon the green,
The cowslips tall her pensioners be,
In their gold coats spots you see,
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their saviours,
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
Modified into today’s English:
I serve the fairy queen,
Adding dew drops to her flowers in the grass.
The tall cowslips are her servants.
In their golden coats you can see spots.
Those are rubies, gifts from the fairies.
Their sweet smell comes from those freckles.
Now I must go to find some dewdrops,
And hang a pearl earring on every cowslip flower.
In these pictures, common cowslip grows on a slope beneath the ruins of Hammershus Castle, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primula vulgaris English primrose
This species, also called P. acaulis, is among the earliest flowering plants of northern Europe, in mild springs blooming as early as the beginning of March. Three subspecies of this plant are recognized, native to Europe, north-western Africa, and south-western Asia, eastwards to Iran. The nominate vulgaris, which is distributed in northern, western, and southern Europe, has pale yellow flowers, whereas balearica, which is endemic to the Balearic Islands, has white flowers. The third subspecies, sibthorpii, is found in the Balkans and south-western Asia. It has pink, red, or purple flowers.
English primrose, Møn, Denmark. In the upper picture, lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and white anemone (Anemone nemorosa) are also seen. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primroses probably originated in the Himalaya, where a bewildering array of species is found, about 72 in total. They vary greatly in size, ranging from 5 cm high dwarves to robust plants almost 1 m tall. A number of Himalayan species are presented below. They are described in depth on the page Plants: Flora of the Himalaya.
This tiny plant grows in open areas at altitudes between 3,500 and 4,900 m, distributed from Uttarakhand, north-western India, eastwards to south-eastern Tibet.
Primula atrodentata, photographed in the Khumbu region, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The most abundant primrose in the Himalaya, growing in forest clearings and grassy areas. It has a broad altitudinal range, found at elevations between 1,500 and 4,500 m, from Afghanistan eastwards to Myanmar. As a rule, the inflorescences of this very variable species become larger and denser with higher altitude.
Primula denticulata is abundant around Annapurna Base Camp, central Nepal, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primula denticulata, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Another abundant species, found in forests of the western Himalaya, from Himachal Pradesh eastwards to central Nepal, growing at elevations between 2,100 and 4,100 m. Its long-stalked, bluish-violet flowers sprout directly from the leaf rosette.
Primula edgeworthii, photographed in the Annapurna area, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As its specific name implies, the leaves of this species resemble those of certain species of geranium. It mainly grows on wet banks in forests at altitudes between 2,700 and 4,600 m, from central Nepal eastwards to south-western China.
Primula geraniifolia, photographed near Gorjegaon, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This species is found from western Nepal eastwards to south-eastern Tibet. It is easily identified by the inflorescence, which is a very dense globular head.
Primula glomerata, Langtang National Park, central Nepal. Leaves of a cinquefoil, Potentilla peduncularis, and a dwarf rhododendron, are seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This pretty plant is quite common, growing in forests at altitudes between 2,700 and 3,500 m, from western Nepal eastwards to Sikkim. It is illustrated at the top of this page.
A stout plant, distributed in Central Asia and the Himalaya, where it grows in meadows, at elevations between 3,300 and 4,800 m. Its leaves are lanceolate and entire, to 30 cm long, farinose beneath, and its flowers are lilac or purple.
Primula macrophylla, photographed in the Khumbu area, eastern Nepal, where this species is very common. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A tiny plant, easily identified by its flowers, which have a tuft of white hairs in the throat. The flower colour varies from pale blue to violet-blue. This species grows in open areas at high altitudes, between 3,600 and 5,000 m, from Uttarakhand, northern India, eastwards to south-eastern Tibet.
Primula primulina, Gokyo Valley, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primula rotundifolia Round-leaved primrose
Another tiny species, which grows on rocks at elevations between 3,500 and 5,000 m. It has a rather limited distribution, from Nepal eastwards to south-eastern Tibet.
Round-leaved primrose, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This plant may be identified by its serrated, strongly wrinkled leaves and by the rounded petals, ending abruptly in a single small tooth. It is fairly common in forests at elevations between 2,100 and 3,700 m, from Kashmir eastwards to western Nepal. Another picture, depicting this species, is found at the top of this page.
Primula sessilis, Dodi Tal, Asi Ganga Valley, Uttarakhand, northern India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primula sikkimensis Sikkim primrose
A beautiful and stately plant, which may grow to almost 1 m tall. It is found in wet meadows at elevations between 2,900 and 4,800 m, from western Nepal eastwards to south-western China.
This Sikkim primrose was encountered in the Khumbu region, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primula strumosa Golden-eyed primrose
Usually, this species has bright yellow flowers, but it hybridizes freely with the purple P. calderiana, sometimes resulting in yellow, white, blue, and purple flowers in a single population. It is found in the eastern Himalaya, from Nepal eastwards to China, at altitudes between 3,500 and 4,300 m.
These pictures are from the Ghunsa Valley, eastern Nepal, where the golden-eyed primrose is abundant. In the bottom picture, an inflorescence has been bent to the ground by snowfall. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This stately plant is distributed from Himachal Pradesh eastwards to Sikkim, growing at altitudes between 3,600 and 4,500 m.
Primula stuartii is very common in the Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
With its broadly bell-shaped flowers, this plant differs significantly from most other members of the genus. It has a rather limited distribution, found in central and eastern Nepal, and in southern Tibet, at altitudes between 3,600 and 4,900 m.
Primula wollastonii, Gokyo Valley, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primroses with several umbels
The inflorescence of some primrose species differs from those of most other members of the genus in that the flowers are arranged in several umbels up the stem. Two such examples are shown below.
This species with pretty, golden-yellow flowers grows on humid rocks, from Afghanistan eastwards to western Nepal.
Primula floribunda, observed in a ditch along a road, Uttarakhand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This species is native to mountains of central Taiwan, but is widely cultivated, often making it difficult to determine whether a population is genuinely wild or not.
Primula miyabeana, Alishan National Forest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Where cowslip, English primrose, and/or true oxlip grow together, hybridization often takes place between them. In Denmark, a good place to study these hybrids is in the forest at the white cliffs on the island of Møn, where all three species occur.
Hybrids between cowslip and English primrose, Møn. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hybrids between true oxlip and English primrose, Møn. In the upper picture, yellow anemone (Anemone ranunculoides) is also seen. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Primroses as offerings
In the Himalaya, offerings to stone cairns, sacred trees etc. indicate remnants of pre-Hindu and pre-Buddhist animism. In the picture below, Hindu men are placing a flower offering, consisting of yellow Primula stuartii, yellow Geum elatum, and blue and white Anemone obtusiloba, on a stone cairn – a shrine dedicated to a local Hindu goddess atop Rakhundi Peak (3622 m), Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India. This goddess is probably a form of Devi, the god Shiva’s shakti (female aspect), as the trident is a symbol of Shiva.
Anemone obtusiloba and Geum elatum are described on the page Plants: Flora of the Himalaya, whereas animism is dealt with in detail on the page Religion: Animism.
(Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded August 2017)
(Latest update July 2021)