As we slide into summer in these parts, the winter-blooming flowers are coming to the end of their season; from this posting, about cyclamens:

Winter in northern California is brightened by a number of flowers that thrive in that season: English primroses, anemones, violas (including pansies), and snapdragons, for example. And cyclamens …

(And cymbidium orchids, discussed here.) Now, while they’re still blooming, some words on primroses (including an etymological essay on the name primrose, which has nothing to do with primness.)

I begin with an illustration of the colorful hybrid primroses I know under the common name English primrose:

From the Wikipedia entry on Primula vulgaris:

Primula vulgaris (primrose, syn. P. acaulis (L.) Hill) is a species of flowering plant in the family Primulaceae, native to western and southern Europe (from the Faroe Island and Norway south to Portugal, and east to Germany, Ukraine, the Crimea, and the Balkans), northwest Africa (Algeria), and southwest Asia (Turkey east to Iran). The common name is primrose, or occasionally common primrose or English primrose to distinguish it from other Primula species also called primroses.

… The wild primrose is a staple of cottage garden plantings, and is widely available as seeds or young plants. It grows best in moist but well-drained soil in light shade. It is increased by seed or division. Numerous cultivars have been selected for garden planting, often derived from subsp. sibthorpii or hybrids between the subspecies; these and other garden hybrids are available in a wide range of colours and with an extended flowering season. [And are lightly scented.]

The term Polyanthus, or P. polyantha, refers to various tall-stemmed and multi-coloured strains of P. vulgaris x P. veris hybrids. Though perennial, they may be short-lived and are typically grown from seed or from young plants as biennials. [These are the gorgeous plants pictured above.]

The story starts with the wild primrose. One of the cultivars:

From this photo, you can see the resemblance to (single) wild roses, like this yellow variety (wild roses also come in white, pink, purple, and red):

Five notched petals; and scented. So the rose part of primrose has some motivation: primrose looks like a resembloid compound, referring to a rose-like flower. The etymological puzzle mostly concerns the prim part. From OED3 (June 2007), this long and complex etymological essay:

Probably < Anglo-Norman primerose denoting a plant of the genus Primula (early 15th cent. in an apparently isolated attestation; compare Old French primerose in same sense (13th cent.)), apparently < prime prime adj. + rose rose n.1, although see note below. Compare post-classical Latin prima rosa (a1400 in Alphita as a synonym [by clipping] of primula veris [literally, ‘little firstling of spring’]: see primula n.). Compare earlier primerole n. and later primula n., and see discussion at these entries.

Although the primrose or cowslip is among the first flowers to bloom in spring, it does not resemble a rose [I dispute this above]; the literal interpretation of Anglo-Norman and Old French primerose as ‘first rose’ or ‘earliest rose’ therefore does not seem completely satisfactory to explain its origin. It has been suggested that the French word may represent an alteration of primevoire cowslip (12th cent.; Middle French primevere , French primevère ; < an unattested post-classical Latin *prima vera spring (see primaveral adj.), the flower being so named as it flowers very early in spring), altered by association with Old French, Middle French, French passerose hollyhock (early 13th cent.; < passer pass v. + rose rose n.1, so named on account of the length of the stalk of the hollyhock, which considerably surpasses that of the rose). (Although French primerose is also attested in sense ‘hollyhock’ (1845 in this sense), any etymological connection or continuity between the 13th-cent. and the modern use seem very unlikely. The modern French use in sense ‘hollyhock’ probably represents an alteration of passerose after primevère , with prime- in primevère being apprehended as an (ornative) epithet: see Französisches etymol. Wörterbuch s.v. rosa.)

In sense A. 1b probably after primerole n. or post-classical Latin primula (see primula n.), both of which are attested in the sense ‘daisy’.

The original application of the word in English is uncertain; the 15th-cent. vocabularies and glossaries use it to gloss ligustrum ligustrum n., a plant noted in Roman poets for its white flowers (now identified as the privet (see privet n.1), but by early glossators taken to be a herb); but as ligustrum is also glossed by cowslepe , cowslope , and one explanation of prymrose in Promp. Parv. is primula (and in Catholicon Anglicum primula veris ), it is fairly certain that by the middle of the 15th cent. primrose was applied to either the cowslip or primula or both. In Turner’s Libellus and Names of Herbes, primrose is certainly a Primula and probably the primrose; in Lyte, 1578, it is illustrated and is clearly the primrose (though the ‘cowslippe, oxelippe, and prymerose’ are all included as ‘kindes of Primeroses’). See also discussion at primula n

In form prima rose apparently after post-classical Latin prima rosa (see above).

Apparently attested earlier as a surname, although it is unclear whether this reflects currency of the Middle English or the Anglo-Norman word: Hen. primerose (1365).

The short version of the story is that primroses are prime-roses.

Two side issues: cowslip, or common cowslip, for Primula veris; and the evening primrose.

Cowslip. This common name for Primula veris has an apparently unsavory etymology. From OED2:

Old English cú-slyppe , apparently < cow + slyppe viscous or slimy substance, i.e. ‘cow-slobber’ or ‘cow-dung’ (compare German kuh-scheisse as a plant-name in Grimm)

Some speculation on the rationale for the name in Wikipedia:

The common name cowslip may derive from the old English for cow dung, probably because the plant was often found growing amongst the manure in cow pastures. An alternative derivation simply refers to slippery or boggy ground; again, a typical habitat for this plant.

And for students of resembloid composites, this note in OED2:

Applied with qualifying words to various plants resembling the common cowslip. (a) American cowslip n. Dodecatheon Meadia (family Primulaceæ), with umbels of large rose-purple or white flowers, found in woods in N. America. (b) French cowslip n. (or mountain cowslip) the Auricula (Primula Auricula). (c) cowslip of Jerusalem n.  Jerusalem cowslip n. the lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis (family Boraginaceæ); [(d)] also called cowslip of Bedlam, Bedlam cowslip, bugloss cowslip n. at bugloss n. Compounds. (e) Virginian cowslip n. Mertensia (or Pulmonaria) virginica (Treas. Bot.).

Evening primrose. Now to a different, and not particularly closely related, genus:

Oenothera is a genus of about 125 species of herbaceous flowering plants, native to North and South America. It is the type genus of the family Onagraceae. Common names include evening primrose, suncups and sundrops. They are not closely related to the true primroses (Primula).

The species vary in size from small alpine plants 10 cm tall (e.g., O. acaulis from Chile), to vigorous lowland species growing to 3 m (e.g., O. stubbei from Mexico). The leaves form a basal rosette at ground level and spiral up to the flowering stems; the leaves are dentate or deeply lobed (pinnatifid). The flowers of many species open within less than a minute in the evening, hence the name “evening primrose”, and are yellow in most species but white, purple, pink or red in a few. Most native desert species are white.

… A number of perennial members of the genus are commonly cultivated and used in southwestern United States landscapes. … Annual evening primroses are very popular ornamental plants in gardens. (link)

Here’s a typical yellow evening primrose (or sundrop):

The color is similar to (some) wild primroses, though the flowers have four petals rather than five. Ok, the petals are notched (and a few species are scented, though the most common cultivars are not), so maybe the resembloid compound evening primrose is appropriate, though I’m partial to sundrop.


2 Responses to “primroses”

  1. ranunculus | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] A blog mostly about language « primroses […]

  2. Gamma linole(n)ic acid and borage | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (On evening primroses, see here.) […]

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