The common Evening Primrose, Oenothera biennis, aka sundrops, suncups, or “Evening Star,” is a tall, weedy, night-blooming plant unrelated to the traditional primrose or primula. Native to North America, it was introduced into Italy in the 1600’s and made its way to England where it naturalized (Ward 134). Often found growing on waste land by railroad tracks and especially suited to sandy or gravely soil, the tall spikes of yellow flowers can grow up to five feet tall and open every evening at sunset. Rising out of a basal rosette with four petals per flower, large, fragile, and soft yellow in color, they wilt every morning. According to the Wildlife Trusts in the UK, they attract butterflies, bees, and moths searching for nectar and are thus “A good choice for a wildlife garden.”
Woolf mentions evening primroses five times in her prose, mostly in contexts which suggest that the flowers are redolent with memories of Cornwall. Though there is no direct confirmation that such flowers grew at Talland House, Marion Dell does mention that the path down to the beach led down through “Primrose Valley, an area of gardens and orchards” (Remembering 40), and the warm, sandy growing conditions would be ideal for the tall American weeds.
The first three appearances of evening primroses, in the 1916 essay “Butterflies and Moths,” in the 1919 essay “Reading,” and in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), all refer to the flowers as attractors of moths. In her early account of the autumnal pleasures of butterfly hunting, Woolf claims that “few sights have a greater enchantment than that of a Hawk moth with its vibrating wings blurred in movement, suspended above a tobacco plant or an evening primrose” (E6 382). This image is repeated in “Reading,” where the house, overlooking a tennis lawn and the ocean, is bounded like Talland House with ESCALLONIA hedges; at twilight, as the tennis players pass inside, “the moths came out, the swift grey moths of the dusk, that only visit flowers for a second, never settling, but hanging an inch or two above the yellow of the Evening Primroses, vibrating to a blur” (E3 150). A similar scene is evoked at the florist shop in Mrs. Dalloway when Clarissa tunnels back to her childhood memories of twilight evenings: “how she loved the grey-white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!" (MD 13).
Evening primroses are explicitly connected with Talland House when they appear at its Scottish manifestation in To the Lighthouse, as Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are strolling the garden before dinner. Mrs. Ramsey is concerned about rabbits because “Some creature anyhow was ruining her Evening Primroses,” and the tall flowers lead her eye upwards toward the evening star (TTL74). But, lost in his own thoughts, her husband notices neither plant nor planet.
There is one last rather random mention of evening primroses in Woolf’s diary, written while visiting Athens in April of 1932: “I like Athens about 7, when the streets are hurrying clamouring, flitted across by all those black whitefaced women, & shawled women, & dapper little men who come with the bats & the evening primroses in Southern towns” (D4 91). The moths have been replaced by the Greek yayas, grandmothers dressed in mourning black, who converge upon the evening streets like crepuscular bats.
|I found this picture of evening primroses at a cafe in Athens on Trip Advisor|