A briliancy of primroses blooming in spring

ANOTHER LIFE: In the thicket of bare willows beyond our hedge, the lower twigs fly wisps of fleece dragged from the backs of…

ANOTHER LIFE:In the thicket of bare willows beyond our hedge, the lower twigs fly wisps of fleece dragged from the backs of foraging sheep: they shimmer in the sun like Tibetan prayer flags. On this side, on mossy ground quite frost-shorn of last year's weeds, a few clumps of primroses gleam, for once unchallengeably prima rosa, writes MICHAEL VINEY

The clear and singing lemon-yellow of the primrose, so strangely full of light, moved the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to one of his special coinages. “Take a few primroses in a glass,” he mused in his journal, “and the instress of brilliancy – sort of starriness: I have not the right word –­ so simple a flower gives is remarkable. It is, I think, due to the strong swell given by the deeper yellow middle.” But scientists have given more obsessive attention to the primrose than any poet. What put Darwin down on his (often tender) stomach on the lawn, transferring fertilising pollen from flower to flower, was the classic demonstration by Primula vulgaris of floral dimorphism –­ two different forms of the same flower, each on separate plants, designed to help ensure advantages in fertilisation.

The first wild primroses to bloom in my garden are growing below hawthorn hedges more than 30m apart. Picking a few from each colony of flowers and inspecting them closely, I found them conveniently illustrating the point. While superficially identical, the flowers on one side of the garden were “pin-eyed”­ on the other, “thrum-eyed”.

For a full picture of the difference and its reasons, I would send you to a big, remarkable and lovely book by the UCD ecologist John Feehan, The Wildflowers of Offaly, published last year by Offaly County Council with the help of the Heritage Council. And since the wildflowers of that county match most of those across Ireland, it belongs in any house that cares about these things.

What is so different about the book is Feehan’s meticulous description of the structure, engineering and appearance of plants and their flowers –­ technical-sounding, but in fact always readable and often fascinating. To quote the essential bit on primroses: “If you look directly down into the eye of a flower you may see a pinhead-like stigma at the top of the corolla tube, and half-way down you will see the five anthers grouped in a ring around the style. But then if you look into the flowers from a different plant you are just as likely to see the anthers at the top and the stigma half-way down.” The first flowers are called “pin-eyed”, the second “thrum-eyed”, each conjuring different sizes of pollen. The ingenious result is that insects with long tongues, such as bumble-bees, moths and butterflies, when reaching for the nectar at the bottom of the tube, cross-pollinate each kind of flower to produce the biggest and best seed-crops. “I do not think anything in my scientific life has given me so much satisfaction,” wrote Darwin, “as making out the meaning of the structure of these plants.” Getting this sorted might seem the end of the primrose’s fascination for science, but the study of “reciprocal herkogamy” has forged ahead in population genetics. Counting how many of each kind of flower there are has been a basic undertaking, and I was fascinated to Google a paper in 1938 by Britain’s JBS Haldane, a famously controversial Communist scientist and intellectual bogeyman of my youth. He spent time counting hundreds of “pins” and “thrums” in the woods of Wales and southern England to see how nearly equal their numbers might be (answer: pretty equal).

The primrose is far too peculiar to serve as the "workhorse" plant, so to speak, in botanical research. That honour has belonged for several decades to a nondescript and diminutive weed called Arabidopsis thaliana, otherwise thale cress or mouse-ear cress (from the little, rounded leaves of its basal rosette).

Like the little "fruit flies" of the Drosophila family that serve as model organisms in myriad genetic experiments, Arabidopsis has a small, well-explored genome and rapid life-cycle and lends itself to mass production – thousands of its plants can be studied in a single greenhouse. For the real, human excitement of such work, not to say amazement at what a little weed can show, read Nicholas Harberd's brilliant Seed to Seed: The Secret Life of Plants(2006), all about the life of a single Arabidopsis he found growing in a churchyard in East Anglia.

While reckoned only “occasional” in Ireland, the weed pursues its busy existence on the compost of many of my outdoor potted plants. I have brought in a little rosette of it, already hoisting its stem to a tuft of microscopic white blossoms.

For Harberd, the flowering of his plant was “a great moment” of survival, as it was postponed by a devastating slug attack to almost the end of May.

Eye on nature

A robin built a nest in the ivy on the oil-burner shed, about eight feet from the back door. Before she started carrying in dead leaves to build the nest, she used to hover in front of the ivy as if catching flies, but I could see no flies.

Brian Devine, Droichead Nua, Co Chill Dara

She was probably getting the lie of the land and picking her site.

I have always heard that magpies are nature’s opportunists. On three freezing cold days recently, I spotted one of the local pair hunkered down and asleep in the hollow between the shoulder-blades of a rather hairy cow in a nearby field.

Brian Nolan, Barna, Co Galway

I watched two coal tits fighting while a third kept flying about and calling. After a minute or so the fighters parted and flew away with one chasing the other before returning to what I assumed was the female.

Martin Crotty, Blackrock, Co Louth,

An Argentinian black and white tegu lizard was washed up on the strand at Laytown. Most likely, it was someone’s deceased pet, dumped in the Boyne or from a ship. It measured 70cm long.

Kieran Campbell, Laytown, Co Meath

It was a juvenile and would have grown to 120cm.

  • Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo. Email : viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address