Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Of Primroses (and Telephone Exchanges)


Growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and 60s, my family's phone number began with PR for Primrose, and since I lived in a place called Floral Park, that seemed appropriate. We all lived on streets named for flowers. Before the spread of suburbia, our area was dominated by mail order flower farms. I liked those old word-and-number telephone exchanges. At some point the USA changed to purely numerical numbers, effectively taking the poetry out of telephone addresses.

But I never knew what primroses really looked like until I took a trip to San Francisco one winter. Admiring the pretty two and even three-colored flowers planted in containers just about everywhere, I asked somebody what they were and closed that gap in my knowledge of flora and fauna. Of course there are many different varieties. This winter I've had great luck with a potted purple primrose. It just keeps blooming and blooming.

Primroses are perennial in places like Oregon. They like damp, moist conditions. Here in Houston they do well in late fall, winter and early spring. When it hits 80 degrees Fahrenheit, they're history. They don't need much sunshine and like a fair amount of compost, manure or fertilizer.

What about walking down primrose paths? I don't know how or why this particular flower came to be involved with what is a negative concept: a course of self-indulgent action that is deceptively easy but may very well lead to calamity or disaster. Like so many idioms, the saying seems to hark back to Shakespeare, appearing in both Hamlet and Macbeth. In Hamlet, Ophelia warns her brother not to take an easy primrose path of dalliance towards hell. In Macbeth, the Porter speaks the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. In today's parlance, it is often the stockbrokers or bankers that are accused of leading us to such a place. Ginger Rogers starred in a film named Primrose Path, wherein she is determined not to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who happened to be a prostitute. As a name, the Primrose is more common as a last name than a first, no surprise.

For more information on the cultivation of primroses, there's lots to learn on the American Primrose Society webpage. As for their folklore, in Ireland and Wales primroses are characterized as fairy flowers, thought to give powers of invisibility. And that's just about everything I was able to learn about primroses today. Thank you, fair readers!

photo by KAO: purple primrose and backyard hen, 2010

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