April with its dry bright weather has given us a wonderful display of wild flowers, and none better than the primroses. On a drive to the Lake District recently, I was enchanted by roadsides and field banks covered with clumps of these pale yellow flowers, more abundant than I remember seeing before.
I think I love them so much because I came to primroses late. I knew them through books, of course: Little Grey Rabbit making wine from them and the child protagonists picking primrose posies just before encountering Worzel Gummidge. Fine. But in my little patch of fields and lanes on the edge of Burley-in-Wharfedale, though there were bluebells, violets, wood anemones and marsh marigolds aplenty, there weren’t any wild primroses. It was only later when I ventured across the steppingstones into the fields below Askwith that I found storybook banks of them. I can’t account for this discrepancy: geology, south-facing aspect or, probably, a combination of circumstances.
My patch was also lacking in cowslips, a close relative of the primrose that readily hybridises with it. Now I only have to drive along the Burley bypass to see roundabouts and wayside verges full of these cheerful wild primulas. They were introduced there but this roadside environment suits them and they flourish, giving our spirits a lift as we speed past.
There is a third wild primula native to Wharfedale, and I have a precise memory of when I first saw it. In 1940s Burley we didn’t travel much: an excursion to Bolton Abbey was a major event. Then, one day in early June 1945, my best friend’s father, on leave from the army, managed to borrow a car and took us all for a picnic up the Dale. I remember noticing how the drystone walls changed colour and the landscape seemed to glimmer under a different light-we’d entered limestone country. We got as far as Littondale and stopped to picnic. The ground was a mosaic of wild flowers and, to my astonishment, I didn’t recognize any of them. It was my introduction to limestone flora. Chief among them were little yellow and mauve pansies and the dainty birdseye primrose, primula farinosa. A slender stem rises from a rosette of leaves and carries a spray of flowers of a satisfyingly strong pink. It’s a Dales’ speciality. Wharfedale is home to three kinds of wild primula: two of them we can see very easily, the third takes a bit more effort. It’s definitely worth it.
Jenny Dixon – Wharfedale Naturalists Society (wharfedale-nats.org.uk)