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9 Mar 2009

Spring at last

Some of the things that indicate spring is arriving (not the weather which is staying dreadful) include daffodils and crocuses in gardens and parks, bouncing lambs in the fields, and a lot of ploughs in fields. But for me, the main and most welcome sign is the appearance of primroses in the hedgerows, embankments and roadsides, throughout Normandy. And here they are, as in the photo above.

In England, the primroses – the primavera of Italians - that I saw as a boy in Somerset have virtually disappeared: they might occasionally be seen beside a railway line, or motorway, but never in the profusion that used to occur. The cause is mostly the use of herbicides, that kill everything apart from tough grasses.

Primroses grow wild only in grass on well drained places. The grasses die back in winter, so that in early spring the primroses can grow their leaves, and then their flowers, quickly and freely. Too much undergrowth and they cannot push their way through; clear earth and they do not have the protection they need through the winter. The ideal is for the undergrowth to be cut in the autumn, leaving short grasses only. That happens as a result of the annual fauchage – the cutting of the roadsides, hedges and bocage facing the roads by the local councils. In the countryside, a tractor with a hedge/grass cutter attachment passes along the roads giving everything a neat, but short trim.

One can see the effects every spring: masses of wonderful pale yellow flowers everywhere. At the height of their short season violets appear in the same places, to be followed by early spotted orchids, purple spikes of little orchid flowers.

What does not happen in France is the extraordinary seas of bluebells that we get in England. The same flower can be found but it only seems to grow as individual plants; the Spanish bluebell is paler, weaker and and also grows alone. The photo of bluebells above was taken last year in Ashridge Forest in Hertfordshire, and happens every year. An odd thing about bluebells is some people, like me, find their scent overwhelming and almost sickly, whereas others, like my wife, cannot smell them at all. And one thing about primroses is that some of them are not yellow, but white, or as some in the picture above, pink in various shades. 

Shakespeare used the term 'primrose path' to indicate the pleasant route through life, of pleasure and dissipation, but perhaps leading to damaging and dreadful outcomes. Just a metaphor, the flowers are wonderful, and their return each year signifies that everything is going to get better.

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