Fleetneedles' Forage: Primrose Vulgaris

As part of our Save Our Skills year, we are looking at foraging. These post were originally published on our Facebook Page, we'd like to thank Claire Fleetneedle for allowing us to publish them here.

Uses for primrose vulgaris #saveourskills #foraging

Primrose – Primula Vulgaris

At this time of year with the wild winds and winter showers, spring feels such a long way away. In such cold conditions the primrose never ceases to surprise me. Whilst most plants are hibernating the hardy little primrose seems to thrive. I have to say that aesthetically it’s not my favourite flower but for sheer perseverance I have to admire it.
Its name comes from the Latin primus meaning ‘first rose’ and at one time it grew wild abundantly in the British Isles. However with the loss of woodland and modern farming it is now rare in its natural habitat. Cultivated primroses are, however, a very popular perennial and come in an array of colours, gracing the gardens and plant pots of many homes.

The ones in my front garden are currently in bloom which made me consider what they could be used for. It also crossed my mind that a few hundred years ago in the depths of winter the primrose might have been more highly regarded than it is now. With winter stores beginning to wain and little in season, any fresh foliage must have been welcome. The leaves are edible if a little tough and their sharp flavour meant they were once a popular potherb. I haven’t sampled the flowers but they were traditionally used to make syrups and heady homemade wines. The flowers were also a common garnish for salads and were crystallised for puddings and to decorate sweets. Both root and flower contain a fragrant oil which was once greatly prized.

Like its cousin the cowslip, fresh primrose plant has long been utilised for medicinal purposes.  The root which is harvested and dried in autumn is considered by some to be equally valuable. The root is an anti-spasmodic so has a long history in the treatment of cramps, painful spasms and even paralysis. The root is also rich in saponins which is an expectorant and probably why it was a popular folk remedy for catarrh and chest infections. In addition it possesses diaphoretic qualities so was useful for breaking fevers. Large doses of the dried root are also known to be a powerful emetic so it is wise to take them sparingly.

A simple primrose leaf tea was a traditional country cure for arthritis and joint inflammations, modern research has confirmed that primrose contains salicylates which relieve pain and inflammation, thus proving it as an ideal treatment for such ailments. Primrose tea is also mildly narcotic and is recognised to have sedative qualities used to treat nervous disorders, hyperactivity and insomnia.

In modern herbalism the dried root is considered a cure for migraines and stress headaches whilst in Welsh folklore primrose juice was thought a cure for madness. Other ancient herbalists believed it equally soothing for hysteria, or the ‘phrensie’ as it was called. Although the plant is no longer regarded as beneficial in the treatment of mental illness the flower essence is a successful modern day treatment for seasonal affective disorder.

Culpepper believed a salve made from the primrose would heal any wound. Even within living memory fresh primrose leaves were used to heal boils and abscesses. The veiny underside of the leaf was placed on the affected area to draw the infection and then wrapped in a cotton bandage. When the sore began to close the other side of the leaf was applied to complete the healing process.

In days gone by the purity of the primrose was believed to be a symbol of protection. In rural England primrose posies kept witches at bay, particularly in May when witches were believed to be very active. In Ireland primroses were strung over doorways in May to prevent fairies from entering. Consequently primroses featured heavily in a many old May Day customs. In German folklore it was believed that clumps of primroses grew on buried treasure. If this is true perhaps it would be worth digging up my front garden in the spring.

On a more serious note wild primroses are a protected species in the UK and it is illegal to pick them, if you are lucky enough to spot some please leave them alone.

Happy Herbalism, Claire Fleetneedle

·       As a precaution, remedies made from primrose should not be taken by pregnant or breast feeding women.
·       Do not take primrose if you have an aspirin sensitivity
·       Do not take primrose if you are taking anti-coagulant drugs
·       Be aware that in very rare cases contact with primroses can cause skin irritation and allergic reaction

These are some of my personal experiences using primroses combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate, in the treatment of specific conditions it is always best to consult a herbalist or your GP. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the above please stop using the herb immediately. And always take care when identifying the plant.

LIFE ON PIG ROW DISCLAIMER: We’d like to thank Claire for this wonderful piece, as she points out, this is her personal experience and common sense must prevail in homemade herbal remedies. Therefore, if you are out and about foraging and aren’t confident that what you are about to pick is edible or medicinal the best advice is to leave it where it is. In the event of an adverse reaction to any homemade herbal remedy or foraged edible food you are advised to seek out medical advice. While every care is taken in the production of these posts neither Claire Fleetneedle nor Life on Pig Row are responsible for adverse reactions. Please remember to check local by-laws before foraging and never forage on private land without permission. Please use common sense when foraging.


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