Country diary: enchanted by the softness and subtlety of primroses

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The primrose bank was more beautiful to me than any formal garden precisely because it was so unscripted. The plants spread randomly among a multitude of other species, exactly in the manner of flower-rich grassland.

Here in this glorious Plantlife-owned reserve were some of the primrose’s stock neighbours: bluebells, field woodrush, dog violets and spikes of slick green lords-and-ladies. Yet none of them seemed to match the softness and subtlety of the primroses: the matt butter of their waxy petals with that inner star of saffron on every corolla, which is precisely the colour of a male redstart’s mouth when it sings.

In photographing them I was not after the self-evident aesthetics of the flowers. I wanted to capture the lowly, humble star-tracking angle of the primrose flowerheads, as well as those glorious sun-soaked crinkly leaves carpeted below.

I later posted my images on social media and was delighted to find that the digital commons were almost as rich in information as my visit to Deep Dale. One friend, who did a PhD on primroses, told me that the strange pink form I saw was a natural variant appearing in about one in 1,000 plants. Another pointed out that the ant I had seen in a flower is party to an essential relationship with primroses. The latter’s seeds bear a fatty morsel (an elaiosome) that the ants carry away and eat, while discarding the more important kernel. It thus aids their dispersal.

The most captivating discovery was that primrose flowers come in two forms (thrum- and pin-eyed) with the male and female sexual parts located at different places in each. As the long tongue of a pollinating insect – for primroses it is mainly moths – reaches down for the sugary rewards in the nectary, the pollen sticks to its proboscis. With this attached it then visits the other flower form and inadvertently deposits the grains in the correct place for reproduction.

I’ve since visited my primroses again: in my mind’s eye, at night, when those waxy lemon moon-like flowers are shaken by the high zizz of beating moth wings.

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