You may not think that something with such a highfalutin name as Evening Primrose (Oenothera) could be a City Plant. But don’t be fooled, this herbaceous flower is no shrinking violet. After all, its favored form of transportation is retreating glaciers. That’s right, the presence of Evening Primrose in New York City is thanks neither international trade nor war nor exploration, but rather to the Ice Age.
The Mayans, used Evening Primrose (kampana ničim in Tzeltal) to treat an ailment they called “wind in the body” characterized by aching pain.
The Mixtec and Zapotec peoples of the region currently known as Oaxaca regarded the flower as having mystical qualities after one grew from the corpse of the Zapotec Princess, Donaji who married a Mixtec king in a political alliance against the ever bloodthirsty Aztecs. To this day, the Oaxacan state seal still bears an image of the Primrose.
On the banks of the Great Lakes the Ojibwa made a poultice of Primrose to treat bruises. The Cherokee boiled its roots into an obesity fighting tea while the plurality of Delaware First Nations found it to ease painful menstrual cycles. Out west, the Zuni held it have more spiritual properties and would give blossoms to the young women of the tribe to rub on their skin as an aid in their ritual dance to ensure enough rain for the season.
Lots of folks used Primrose for food as well. The Apache who chewed Primrose seeds raw and boiled them into gravy and soups. Numerous tribes ate their leaves in salads and noshed on their nutmeg-like roots. But Iroquois ingenuity takes the cake. Before lacrosse games they would chew the seeds then rub the pulp on their legs and arms to avoid fatigue.
As for Evening Primrose’s arrival to the Old World, its entrance is really nothing short of a fairytale. The setting is Northern Italy’s Padua Botanical Garden founded in 1525 by decree of the then powerful Venetian Republic. Its design of four squares within a circle were the period’s symbols of perfection and divine knowledge and each of the beds within were to express an idea of the Creator. As explorers and merchants connected with the Venetian Republic encountered new plants on their journeys, they were brought back to the garden for closer study with the hopes not only of biological discovery, but also of gaining insight into the God’s intentions.
When Primrose arrived to this idyllic setting in 1619 via Virginia, it was intended to be a food source. But, its elegance and beauty immediately overshadowed its utilitarianism, especially to its aristocratic audience. You see, the Primrose arrived to Italy – and to Venice no less – at the height of the Baroque Renaissance, a time when exuberance, grandeur, and drama where of all encompassing import. The Primrose encapsulates all of these qualities. From root to flower Primrose can grow up to 6 feet tall. In the soft dusk half an hour after sunset its bright yellow flowers unfurl, releasing the sweet scent of vanilla which in turn attracts luna moths whose wings glow iridescent in the moonlight.
It is no wonder than that the first viewers of this extravagant performance at the Padua Botanical Garden delayed their departure to the theater to revel in the last strokes of sunlight and breathe in the last wisps of Primrose’s aroma. What more drama could one want than this?
Soon thereafter, every aristocratic garden had to have Evening Primrose and thereby it spread from Italy to England to Spain. Economically, the bourgeois class was also on the rise and wanting to enjoy the finer things in life, started planting this herbaceous bloom as well, cementing its spread across Europe.
That it could also be eaten was utterly forgotten by Europeans for nearly a century until an enterprising peasant or two discovered the deliciousness of its root. Apparently, roasted Primrose Root is extra scrumptous with ham and so the flower was dedicated to the patron saint of pigs, Saint Anthony. Thus, one particularly delectable French recipe for Primrose root and ham is called, “jambon de St. Antoine.”
Residents of Dutchland, though mostly far from Catholic, were also fans of this root though there it was called rapuntica, or, German Rampion. And this is where the story of the Evening Primrose comes full circle.
In regard to European weeds superiority over the Americans, Charles Darwin once goaded the great American botanist, Asa Gray, by saying, “Does it not hurt your Yankee pride that we thrash you so confoundedly?”. To a certain extent, Evening Primrose is our delicious and beautiful revenge. So much so that by 1863 Europe had forgotten entirely that the plant was not actually native to their region. It was then that Evening Primrose was given to the American Garden under the name of German Rampion by a German delegation. Unfortunately the neophytes at the American Gardens didn’t realize its Mesoamerican origins either.
No matter where it’s from or where it’s been, you can currently find Evening Primrose blooming in Red Hook industrial parking lots, Crown Heights construction sites, and atop abandoned buildings in Long Island City.