Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies.
— John Milton, Lycidas, ln 142
Twenty years ago, in Kentucky pastures, a “primrose” was a pink, five-petaled rose, growing close to the ground. This “primrose” (Rosa arkansana) grows, at best, waist high (with the support of a fence line), but grazing usually kept the plant to bellow the knee and often at the ankle. I am very fond of these flowers (which do not keep well when cut), but these were not the primroses Milton imagined.
Most likely, Milton was writing about Primula vulgaris (the common primrose and not a rose at all), but who will ever know with certainty. Primroses are common to English poetry; Spenser wrote of them (primroses made a pretty seat for “fayre Elisa, Queene of shepheardes all” in The Shepheardes Calender: April) and Shakespeare too (Perdita in The Winter’s Tale: “pale primroses / That die unmarried, ere they can behold / Bright Phoebus in his strength–a malady / Most incident to maids”, Act IV, Scene IV). Milton, therefore, read of primroses (notice the similarity to Perdita’s lines), but it is also likely that Milton saw (prior to his blindness) primroses more often than do our contemporaries; the “wild” plant (although safe from grazing) suffers from over collection. I have seen a few growing in well-tended gardens, but usually in isolation. Primroses are available here in the States, online, in garden stores and even in the florist deli at the local grocery store. These primroses are often in garish, hybrid colors; the native color ranges somewhere between lemon and lime, with a white, moon-like glow. I tried growing Primula hybrids under lights twice. The first was purchased post-bloom and already half-dead and the second was a gift from my mother-in-law. It grew well and bloomed, fragrantly (citrus and sweet) straight through the late winter and early spring. By summer, however, a massive infestation of whiteflies persuaded me to place the plant outside under a hedge. The breeze and the predators made quick work of the flies, but the plant did not survive the heat. It passed, both “rathe” and “unmarried”.