The primrose

The primrose

Many people know the story of the Wardian case – the sealed terrarium that enabled planthunters to  transport their discoveries from remote and exotic locations around the world with a much greater degree of success.


It was invented by Dr Nathaniel Ward but his first experiment was not to import plants, rather, to send them in the other direction – all the way from Britain to Australia. That was 1833. He must have sent at least one other case to Australia because its impact on the residents was so strong, it was captured in a popular oil painting that entranced Victorian England.

Primrose Some time after that first trip, a Wardian case arrived in Melbourne containing a simple wild primrose. The ship had docked with perfect timing – the plant was just coming into bloom. At this time almost all the non-aboriginal population of Australia had been born somewhere else – mostly Great Britain or continental Europe. Some were former convicts; others immigrants who had sought a better life downunder.

News of the primrose’s arrival passed quickly around the town. When the case was unpacked crowds thronged to see it. The news got back to Ward.

On Friday 17th March 1854 he gave a lecture at the Royal Institution. The room was adorned with palms, ferns and flowering shrubs, which he used to illustrate how closed glass cases worked. The Morning Chronicle reported how: “He mentioned as a striking instance of the successful conveyance of flowering roots to distant countries, that a primrose had been taken to Australia in a covered glass case, and when it arrived there in full bloom, the sensation it excited, as a reminiscence of “fatherland”, was so great that it was necessary to protect it by a guard.”

The story caught the public imagination. Within a few days a mawkish poem was circulating through publications like The Ladies Companion.

“It hath crossed the foaming waters in its fragrance and its bloom;

It hath left its native dwelling-place to seek a distant home
Where, in its silent eloquence, a welcome tale it tells
Of England’s smooth and mossy banks, green lanes, and sheltered dells.”

Let’s skip a few verses! It arrives.

“All love upon the English flower to rest their wearied eyes,
Reading therein a history of dear and severed ties;
Communion with their absent friends in fancy they attain,
And go, refreshed and solaced, on their busy course again.”

Suffice to conclude, the primrose has “cheered an exile band” and “soothed their toil with pleasant thoughts of Home and Native Land!”

Artist Edward Hopley

It is not known whether the English artist Edward Hopley read the poem, but he certainly saw the report of the lecture – he quotes it in the accompanying text for a painting of the scene that he produced for the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1855.

It shows the primrose on a table in what looks like a pub. Three women lean over it, gazing at it – heads bowed. Light seems to shine from the flower, illuminating their faces. At their feet are children, directly behind them an emotional looking gentleman in top hat. In the shadows stand a various array of men looking somewhat less genteel. To the left light pours from an open door, guarded by a bearded giant with a heavy stick and beyond him crowds, pushing to get in.

The painting, which hangs today in the Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia, became so popular it was reproduced as a woodcut.

A primrose from England by Edward Hopley, 1856. Lithographed by J. R. Dicksee

Fourteen years later, Victorians were still talking about it. A botanical book published in 1869, Flora Symbolica or The Language and Sentiment of Flowers, referred to the fuss the primrose created.

“What conflicting emotions must its pallid petals have aroused in the bosoms of many of its beholders! What mingled feelings of pleasure and pain! What thoughts of the bygone youth passed in the far-away natal isle, must have been stirred up under the seeming calmness of those bronzed countenances!”

I endured that poem, so you don’t have to! But I can say it’s made me appreciate my little primroses all the more.

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.