The following blog was written by Courtney Kemnitz a digitiser in the Herbarium.

Since 2021 we have increased our digitisation capacity with the goal of getting to 1 million specimens imaged by Autumn 2024. Courtney is working through our British and Irish collections. This series of blogs will spotlight the species that have been completed

The primrose is a flower that often gets overlooked. This small, cheerful flower is one of the first to bloom in the spring, and its arrival is a sure sign that warmer days are on their way. Don’t be fooled by its name! Roses and primroses, despite the “rose” in the latter, are quite different botanically. 

Primula vulgaris in snow
Primula vulgaris in the snow (Enrico Blasutto, CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed

Named “Prima Rosa” (meaning “first rose”) in Latin for its early spring blooms, the primrose holds a special place in British and Irish folklore. It’s woven into tales of magic and fairies. In various regions, the flower has earned nicknames like “fairy cups” and “fairy flower,” reflecting this connection.   

Folklore paints the primrose with diverse roles

Protection: In Ireland, placing it in doorways supposedly wards off fairies. 

Fairy Sight: Scottish lore claims eating one grants the ability to see fairies 

Safe Passage: Planting primroses along paths creates safe passage for fairies, ensuring blessings and protection. 

Fairy World: Touching a rock with a specific number of primroses supposedly opens a portal, but using the wrong number brings a curse. 

Blessings and Hospitality: Leaving a primrose on your doorstep invites fairy blessings, while placing one in a cowshed deters them from stealing milk. 

Open Invitation: Hanging primroses outside your house welcomes fairies in. 

These charming traditions paint a picture of the primrose as a bridge between human and fairy realms, adding a touch of magic to the early spring landscape. 

A Closer Look 

Name: Primula vulgaris Huds. 

Family: Primulaceae 

It was first described scientifically in 1762 by William Hudson in his work “Flora Anglica”. 

Common Names* in the British Isles and the Isle of Ireland 

  • English: primrose, common primrose, English primrose 
  • Scots: primros, mey-flooer, mey, spink, meysie 
  • Scots Gaelic: sòbhrag [soh-vrag] 
  • Irish Gaelic: sabhaircín [sah-vir-keen] 
  • Welsh: briallen [bree-al-len] 
  • Manx: sumark [soo-mark] 

*list not exhaustive 

Primula vulgaris illustration
Primrose (Primula vulgaris): flowering stems and leaves. Chromolithograph, c. 1877, after F. E. Hulme. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. Source: Wellcome Collection
Primula vulgaris
Primula vulgaris (Anne Burgess, CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed

Primula vulgaris, or the common primrose, is a small low-lying perennial plant. They commonly grow in damp and shady woodlands, meadows, and hedgerows. 

Primula vulgaris leaves
Leaves of Primula vulgaris (Enrico Blasutto, CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed

Its leaves cluster at its base and are wrinkly with scalloped edges. Thier underside are a bit hairy and soft to touch. 

Primula vulgaris flower
Flower of Primula vulgaris  (AnemoneProjectors, CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed

The flowers of Primula vulgaris have five petals, with colours ranging from pale yellow to cream, with a deep yellow center. The cultivated versions can come in a variety of colors such as, pink and purple. It has a pleasant fragrance. 

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) Herbarium Specimens 

The digitisation of this species within our British Isles collection is now complete. This allows us to see how our collections are distributed and compare this to the species range data recorded by the Botanical Society of the British Isles. 

We hold 105 specimens of Primula vulgaris in the British Collection. There are more specimens held in the collection from other parts of the world.

Country Specimen Count 
Scotland 75 
England 22
Channel Islands 
Ireland  (Republic of Ireland & Northern Ireland) 3
United Kingdom5


Primula vulgaris has a wide native geographic range, stretching from Britian and Ireland, to Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. 

While historically suffering from over-collection, Primula vulgaris remains a widespread sight in the British Isles and Ireland. Preferring shady woodlands and hedgerows, its presence in an area can indicate an ancient woodland. It should be noted that due to the decline of these habitats through human influence primroses are now protected by law.  

primula vulgaris map
Distribution map from the BSBI Plant Atlas 2020

Uses, Past & Present in the British Isles and the Isle of Ireland   

  • Food 
  • Tea  
  • Medicine  
  • Cosmetics 
  • Ornamental gardens 

Literary References from the British Isles and the Isle of Ireland 

Scattered references to Primula vulgaris can be found in British and Irish literature spanning multiple centuries: 

Upon this Primrose hill,
Where if Heav’n would distill
A shoure of raine
each severall drop might goe
To his owne primrose, and grow Manna so;…

Excerpt from “The Primrose, being at Mountgomery Castle, upon the hill, on which it is situate” by John Donne, c.17th century 
Primula vulgaris illustration Flowers from Shakespeares garden
From “Flowers from Shakespear’s Garden: a Posy from the Plays”, illustrated by Walter Crane, 1909 

…pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength – a malady
Most incident to maids;

Excerpt from The Winter’s Tale, Act 4 Scene 4. William Shakespeare, c. 17th century

In Shakespeare, the primrose is symbolic of early death. 

The Primrose of the meads,
the bruised leaves of the bay,
and the (flower-)tops of bushes;
Also produce, and store, and frequent garnerings;
and cups of brimful of wine.

Translated from Welsh. Lines 54-59,  XCI The Chair of Taliesin, Book of Taliesin XIII. Edited, amended, and translated by J. Gwenogoryn Evans, 1915 

From folklore and medicine to gardens and literature, Primula vulgaris has left its mark on the British Isles and Ireland for centuries. Whether you appreciate its delicate beauty, symbolic meaning, or historical uses, there’s no denying the enduring charm of this little spring flower.