Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows
Primrose (top) then Cowslip, 'Oxlip' (third from top) and (bottom) from the left, the arrows show plants of cowslip, primrose and 'oxlip' (over on the right) by the gate at Doorus
Our land and climate is obviously ideal for primroses. I’ve already blogged about Primula juliae 'Wanda' which is taking over all the dank, shady, inhospitable bits of the garden, but the wild primrose is everywhere – particularly on the old field banks. In this part of Ireland stone walls are rare and most fields are bounded by banks of soil, rocks and anything else that comes to hand - including lots of domestic rubbish. They're up to five or six feet in height, often with thorn hedges along the top. We’re in the process of clearing a lot of these banks and making them features in the extended garden we’re creating, and the primrose love the new freedom they've got to spread along these banks.
We’ve also got a handful of cowslip plants, but I got really excited last year when we were clearing a patch of rough grass near our gate and there was what I thought was an oxlip. The flowers had almost died down and I couldn’t be sure, so I’ve been waiting and watching this year to see what appeared.
I knew the oxlip was pretty rare, but I hadn’t realised just how limited it was in the British Isles – just a patch around Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk – and certainly none in Ireland …. so far.
But the books kept stressing that, as well as the true oxlip, there was also a false oxlip – a natural hybrid between the primrose and the cowslip. Perhaps that’s what I had. An imposter!
Now the long wait to find out is over. The primroses came out first and then this week, the cowslip and the ‘oxlip’.
I’ve compared the pictures and I don't think we’re going to be able to re-write the botany of Ireland. It’s almost certainly the hybrid – the false oxlip. As you can see in the picture the chances of the hybrid cropping up are pretty strong as the primrose and cowslip are only a few feet apart and the ‘oxlip’ is only a few feet away from both of them.
Mind you, I can take comfort from the fact that no less an authority than Charles Darwin struggled to distinguish the oxlip and the false oxlip and did numerous experiments to try and sort them out.
And long before him the Bard threw a potential botanical spanner into the works in Oberon's famous speech from Act II of A Midsummer Night's Dream:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows.”
"The wood outside Athens", in which most of the action takes place, would seem to be an English wood, but if it had the oxlip growing it would have to be in Essex, Suffolk or Cambridgeshire. But most scholars consider the woods are based on the Forest of Arden. If the location had moved to the eastern counties it would tell a rather different story about Shakespeare and his influences.
However, the answer is probably that the Bard was also referring to the more widely distributed false oxlip.
But it wouldn't be quite the same if Oberon said:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where that imposter, the false oxlip, and the nodding violet grows.”