1 April 2016

Sweet peas and primrose pottage.

I've written before about my dislike of winter and the wet and gloomy days it brings, but I'm delighted to say that the clocks have gone forward, there are lambs in the fields, frogspawn in the ponds and one of my favourite wild flowers, the primrose, is blooming in Hill Top garden and the surrounding woods.

Primrose at Hill Top

The primrose is the sacred flower of the Norse goddess of love Freya and gets it's common name from the medieval Latin 'prima rosa' meaning first flower. Like many wild flowers it has a wealth of common names depending on which part of the country you live, including Butter Rose, Jack in Box, Jack-in-the-Green, King-Charles-in-the-Oak, Lady's Frills, Milk Maid, Primorole, St. Peter's Wort, Summeren, Spink, May Spink, and  Summerlocks. Primroses were considered fairy flowers in Ireland and Wales but they represented wantonness in England, as expressed in the phrase 'to be led down the primrose path'.

The alleged medicinal properties of the primrose are equally numerous (as always, please don't try any of these at home); in the past it was considered a blood purifier, and useful for gout, palsy, and lumbago. An ointment made from the leaves and flowers was commonly used for skin problems. It was said to heal wounds, burns and scalds, and to soften wrinkles, lighten freckles and other discolorations of the skin. Primrose was also used for vertigo, hysteria, epilepsy, convulsions, palsy, backache, cystitis, and urine retention! Handily, it was also used as a cure for alcoholism - probably brought on by those short gloomy winter days.
The flowers were also the chief ingredient in a dish called Primrose Pottage which was made by boiling pounded flowers, honey, almond milk, saffron, rice flour and powdered ginger. It was served garnished with flowers and surprisingly for a fifteenth century recipe actually sounds quite edible. 

One of the things about being a gardener is that the year is divided up not so much by calendar months but by the seasons and the tasks required in each season. This time of year is always time to start sowing seeds and some of the first to be sown are the sweet peas. Now, if you watch 'Gardener's World' of a Friday evening you'll probably see Monty Don sowing his sweet peas in autumn, but up here in the cold wet North I prefer to wait until spring.

Sweet pea sowing kit (other seed merchants are available!)

Sweet peas can be awkward to germinate, they have a hard seed coat and if sown straight into the ground can rot off. Some sources say to soak the seeds in water for a day but that didn't work for me at all and others say to chip a small section of the seed coat off with a sharp knife (too many injuries and seeds flying off across the greenhouse). My own technique involves a pair of pliers and some sandpaper. Take the seed and grip it gently but securely in the pliers and rub the seed on the sandpaper several times until a small hole appears in the seed coat. Just make sure you don't sandpaper the pale coloured 'eye' where the shoot will appear from.

A nice neat hole

Once that's done, pop the seeds into some compost, (I always start mine off in the greenhouse), water them in and in a couple of weeks you should see green shoots appearing. Grow them on for a few weeks until they are about 10cm tall then pinch out the growing tip to encourage bushy side shoots. When the seedlings look big enough to fend for themselves, plant them out in the garden in some nice rich soil with some canes or hazel poles to support them. I like to use small twigs as well to keep the young plants from rocking about in the wind.

A light covering of compost and they're ready to go.

By early Summer you should be picking your first blooms and the more you pick, the more flowers will be produced. Try to make sure you don't leave any old flowers on the plant as they'll turn into seed pods and slow down the flower production. Incidentally, if you want that lovely sweet pea scent, and that's really half the point of growing them in the first place, buy old-fashioned types, some of the modern frilly-flowered varieties hardly smell at all.

The end result

For my musical link this time I could have gone for 'Primrose Polka' by Jimmy Shand but I've used that one in a blog before, or 'Primrose' by the bizarrely named and equally bizarre sounding United Sacred Harp Musical Association, but I plumped for this by 'The Modfather' Paul Weller.
And just for good measure here's a poem by our old friend Robert Herrick (he of 'Gather Ye Rosebuds' fame) and it's called, appropriately enough, 'The Primrose'.

Ask me why I send you here
This sweet Infanta of the year?
Ask me why I send to you
This primrose, thus bepearl'd with dew?
I will whisper to your ears
The sweets of love are mix'd with tears.

Ask me why this flower does show
So yellow-green, and sickly too?
Ask me why the stalk is weak
And bending (yet it doth not break)?
I will answer, These discover

What fainting hopes are in a lover.

Enjoy the spring, see you soon.

Words and pictures by Gardener Pete / Robert Herrick