Québec name: la primevère du lac Mistassini
Common names : Lake Mistassini primrose, Canadian primrose, Dwarf Canadian primrose, Bird's Eye primrose, Canada Cowslip, Oxlip
Genus: Primula < primula veris medieval Latin, literally ‘first little thing of spring’ < primus Latin, first + - ula Latin feminine diminutive ending, little + ver, veris Latin, spring.
Family: Primulaceae, the primrose family
Species: Of the more than 500 species in Primula, most are tender biennials and perennials grown as pot plants and put into Canadian gardens for the summer. But some will winter if protected. Hundreds of hybrids exist, but only one wild one will concern us here.
The Canadian primrose, Primula mistassinica Michx., is now rare in the Pacific and western areas of its range. Other names include Dwarf Canadian primrose, Lake Mistassini primrose, and Bird's Eye primrose. A hardy little primula that likes cool wet feet, it welcomes a May morning with a compact umbel of purply-pink flowers that have vivid yellow eyes. Preferred habitats include springy stream banks and dripping rock ledges that keep its soil moist.
The plant was discovered in the spring of 1786 in the eastern part of its range in northern Québec. The year before, Louis XVI, monarch of France, had fallen into a regal funk because his gardens at Versailles had begun to bore him. “One more clump of fleur-de-lys and I’ll eat my wig!” he may have pouted to France’s greatest botanist of the day, André Michaux, remembered in the last part of the flower’s botanical name, in the authority tag, as Michx. The king then shipped the obedient and delighted Michaux off to the new world to collect more inspiring specimens.
Michaux discovered and named hundreds of plants new to the botany of his day. He traveled widely in North America. One floral gem Michaux found beside Lake Mistassini, named by the local Montagnais for the great boulders that line its shore. Mista-assini means ‘big-rock water’ in Montagnais. Michaux called it a fairy primrose because it was smaller than French species he knew.
Historic fur trading rock at the head of the Rupert River on Lake Mistassini. Fur brigades supplying Mistassini from Rupert's House would leave tobacco offerings here when passing.
Lac mistassini is Quebec’s largest natural lake. Half the size of Lake Ontario, Mistassini Lake lies 700 kilometres north of Montreal near Chibougamau, surrounded by black spruce forests and fabled rivers. It’s a brook trout paradise. From Lake Mistassini most North American hatcheries get their initial brookie stock.
Primrose is an Englishing of primula. But the oldest word in our language for a species is cowslip which began in Anglo-Saxon or Old English as cu-slyppe ‘cow dung,’ such an unpleasant tag for so fetching an herb arising from the fact that these plants did well in a moist meadow near a plop of cow manure and Anglo-Saxons apparently thought the flower sprang from cow paddies! Slyppe is cognate with slipa Old Norse, slime, dung, shit, mud, and is related to slop.
Dwarf Canadian Primrose in Saskatchewan peat bog
Uses: Primrose flowers are made into a wine, used to perk up jams, and candied to decorate pastries. Young cowslip leaves add spice to salads and meat stuffings. Some people chop up the pungent root of Primula vulgaris (Latin, common) and add it to potpourri. Personally I would not use it for any of these purposes due to its allergen-laden leaflets.
Toxic Leaves of Primrose?
A popular belief of gardeners is that all primroses cause skin irritation if one touches the leaves. This is not true for everyone and not true for all primroses. Most have glandular hairs on the underside of the leaves. The heads of these hairs contain a quinone called primetin that will indeed irritate human skin but usually only in persons particularly prone to dermal allergies. The stamens of many species produce a mild contact dermatitis. Don’t touch the stamens and avoid vacuum-cleaner-like sniffings of the flowers.
Here’s a toxicology lab note on the active chemical.
5,8-dihydroxyflavone (primetin) the contact sensitizer of Primula mistassinica Michx.
“ 5,8-Dihydroxyflavone (primetin) has been shown to be the sensitizer in Primula mistassinica Michaux and probably the source of allergic contact dermatitis in four milkers. Its sensitizing properties as determined in guinea-pigs, are strong. As far as is known this is the first experimental demonstration of the sensitizing potency of a flavone. Presumably the flavone, with its uncommon 5,8-arrangement of hydroxy groups, is oxidized in the skin to the corresponding quinone (primetinquinone). Quinone was prepared from primetin and used for experimental sensitization of guinea-pigs. It also revealed strong sensitizing properties. Cross-reactions were obtained not only with the synthetic quinone in the flavone-sensitive animals but also with primetin in primetinquinone-sensitive guinea-pigs. Preliminary sensitization tests with other flavones have demonstrated that the whole group of flavonoid components should be taken into consideration as potential sensitizers.”
authors of tox. abstract: Hausen BM, Schmalle HW, Marshall D, Thomson RH.
Biographical Note about Michaux
André Michaux was born in 1746 and died in 1802. After studying under Bernard de Jussieu, beginning in 1779, he began a series of explorations searching for and classifying new species of plants in England, France and the Pyrenees. Becoming French Consul in Persia led to full-time botanical explorations there (1782-85). Next, by order of the king of France, Louis XVI, Michaux travelled in North America to send back tree species suitable to transplant for naval shipbuilding. French shipbuilders wished to copy English masts and see if the superbly tall pines of North America, so excellent as masts, might grow in France. Before his departure from Paris, Thomas Jefferson provided Michaux him with letters of introduction as a scientist. In 1801, while exploring for plants in Madagascar his health failed from the exertion and he died of a tropical fever. Besides the hundreds of plants that bear his name, Michaux is remembered as the silviculturist who wrote the first book on the forest trees of America.
Shakespeare enjoyed the sound of the word, as in Act 2 of Macbeth where the porter’s famous hell speech concludes, “I had thought to have let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire.” In Hamlet, the chaste Ophelia advises her brother Laertes against “the primrose path of dalliance.”
© copyright 2013 Wiliam Gordon Casselman
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from Canadian Garden Words
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