Given its age old association with May Day in France – I was hoping that I would find a Lily of the Valley (La Muguet) amongst the first blooms in Grandville’s Les fleurs animées but he seems to have missed this early sign of Spring. Tradition says that Charles IX first gave out sprigs of the flower as tokens of good luck – though it appears that did not work for many of his Huguenot courtiers if history is to be believed. Predating the King’s little flowery gesture it was the custom in many places in France for a bride-to-be to announce her pending nuptials by hanging sprigs of the heavenly scented flower in the doorway of her parent’s home. Over time it became commonplace to give lily of the valley to loved ones on the first day of May – a tradition still observed today. It also became a symbol of an emerging labour movement in the 1800s and was worn as boutonnieres on International Workers Day. It would have been nice to be able to offer my friend Yvette in France – and all my other friends too – a porte bonheur to celebrate the arrival of spring however that was not to be.
Rather Grandville and Taxile Delord heralded the arrival of Primavera with a rather chilling little conversation between the Snowdrop and the Primrose. And given the chill that has descended on Ottawa in the past few weeks perhaps it is appropriate. Though Grandville’s flowers are without question feminine, Delord’s tale is one of unrequited love between a lady (?) and a gentle man.
Galanthus (Snowdrop; Greek gála “milk”, ánthos “flower”) is one of a small genus of bulbs which break through the snow and flower before the Vernal Equinox. It has been suggested that the snowdrop may well be the mysterious herb moly that acts as an antidote to Circe’s poison in the Odyssey. Given the rather ageist tale being told by Delord it is perhaps a touch ironic that as well as having antitoxin properties galantamine is also used to control but sadly not cure Alzheimer’s.
After the ground has been warmed by the sun – and also perhaps by the efforts of the snowdrop to break through the snow – Primroses (from prima rosa or first rose) make their early appearance. Under the right conditions they can carpet an open wood and were a great favourite of Victorian cottage gardeners. Give the cruel manner in which Miss Primerose in our tale parries Snowdrop’s declarations of affection perhaps the Latin name of Primula vulgaris is not unwarranted.
THE SNOWDROP AND THE PRIMROSE
Primrose! Primrose! Wake up!
Who calls me?
It is thy friend the Snowdrop, who is cold, and wishes to warm himself in thy breath.
How pleasant it seems to inhale the spring breeze—to see the green herb — to feel the warm odour of the buds—and to see one’s self in the pellucid stream!
But for me, thou hadst been sleeping still. To me thou owest the smiles of this bright April morning. Ah! didst thou but know how pretty thou art, in thy little white corsage — how fresh thy cheeks are — and how gracefully thou stoopest to the breeze that brushes past thee! Bend towards me thy corolla, and let me give thee a kiss.
The spring loves not the winter; youth loves not old age. Thou art at the point of death, and yet thou talkest of love.
My strength has been exhausted by piercing through the hard snows of winter. But thy breath, Primrose, refreshes me. Love will revive me.
Dost thou not perceive in the air, the fluttering of unseen wings? The young Zephyr is coming. It is he whom I wish to love, and who shall have my first kiss.
I have bloomed until this time, in spite of the frost. I feel that spring is coming. Must I die without hearing the sweet songs of the birds, and without experiencing the reviving warmth of the sun and of love?
The old are intended neither for the sun nor for love. The warm breath of spring, and of the passions, injures their weak lungs. Woe to him who loves too late!
While she was saying this, Zephyr swept past the Primrose. Breath and perfume were mingled together. The wind, excited by this kiss, then swept over the head of the Snowdrop, which died, a victim to the breeze.
And to think when I had my first garden primroses were one of my favourite flowers – after that crack about the old I may just have revised my affection for those lovely – but obviously heartless – spring flowers.
04 April – 1910: The Royal Canadian Navy is created.