Spotlight on Evening Primrose

Origins | Description | Qualities | History | Cultivation | Harvesting
Culinary Uses | Magical Uses | Other Uses | Quotes

The Evening Primrose - A Poem

by Dorothy Parker

You know the bloom, unearthly white,
That none has seen by morning light -
The tender moon, alone, may bare
Its beauty to the secret air.

Who'd venture past its dark retreat
Must kneel, for holy things and sweet,
That blossom, mystically blown,
No man may gather for his own
Nor touch it, lest it droop and fall....
Oh, I am not like that at all!

Latin name - Oenothera biennis
aka - common evening primrose, donkeys' herb, fever plant, field primrose, gardeners' ham, german rampion, King's-cure-all, night willow-herb, scabish, scurvish, tree primrose, war poison
Family - Onagraceae
Parts used - leaves, flowers, seeds and roots
Purported actions - antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, astringent, hypotensive, mucilaginous, sedative
Methods of use
- culinary, medicinal, cosmetic

Origins - The evening or tree primrose is said to have originated in Mexico and Central America some 70,000 years ago. It subsequently spread right across the North American continent and from there came to Europe. It can now be found growing all over the world in temperate climates.

Description - Evening primrose is a biennial plant often found along river-banks and in other sandy places. The stem is erect, stout, and softly-hairy.

The flowers appear anytime from June to October. They are 1 to 2-1/2 inches across, bright yellow with four petals, they have a lemony scent and grow in spikes on auxiliary branches all along the stalk. The plant has a fairly short blooming period, the individual flowers are only around for a day or so, they first open in the evening (hence the name) and are said to glow in the dark, unfortunately they wither and die the following day.

The seed pod is an oblong, hairy capsule which contains the precious seeds.

The leaves are narrow and tapered, 3 - 6 inches long.  Most varieties have a silvery sheen due to the many short hairs on the surface of the leaf.

Attributed medicinal qualities - Herbalists consider the leaves together with the stem bark and the flowers and the seed oil to be the valuable parts. They have been used in the treatment of gastro-intestinal disorders, whooping cough and asthma. A tea made from the roots is also used in the treatment of obesity. Many modern herbalists use an extract in cough remedies. The herb has been shown to hinder platelet aggregation (stickiness of the blood),

Nowadays Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) is extracted from the seeds, which contain two essential fatty acids: gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) an essential fatty acid that the body does not manufacture and linoleic acid (LA). Both GLA and LA are said to aid in the reduction of pain and inflammation. Taken internally, the oil is said to have an effect in lowering blood pressure and in preventing the clumping of platelets, it has been recommended in treating cirrhosis of the liver and is most commonly taken for premenstrual problems, including tension and abdominal bloating. Some medical practitioners believe that multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferers may benefit from internal treatment with the oil, as may people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

More specifically, EPO is beneficial in treating forms of dermatitis (i.e. eczema), breast pain resulting from PMS (premenstrual syndrome), menstrual cramps, hot flushes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

There is no scientific evidence that evening primrose oil is effective in preventing or treating cancer. While the two essential fatty acids found in evening primrose play a role in health and disease, larger clinical studies are needed to determine whether the fatty acids in evening primrose oil are useful in treating cancer or other conditions.

History - This plant was a staple food for many Native American tribes who ate the boiled, nutty-flavoured root, and used leaf poultices from the plant for bruises and haemorrhoids. Hunters are said to have rubbed the root on the soles of their mocassins to mask their smell and get closer to the animals.

The seed spread on ships and European settlers took the root back to England and Germany, where it was introduced as food and became known as German rampion. It was imported first into Italy and has since then been carried all over Europe. In Germany it is called nachtkerz or night candle.

It was first used in botany in 1587 and in an English publication in P. Miller's 1754 Gardeners Dictionary. In England, during the 17th century, this herb was called the "King's cure-all" by herbalists, and it was considered a panacea for treating most ailments

The botanical name Oenothera comes from the Greek "Oïnos", wine and "ther", wild animal : for the Ancients, it designated a plant the roots of which, soaked in wine, would have enabled to tame wild beasts or because eating the roots was once believed to increase a person's appetite for wine. Folklore also says that evening primrose counters the effects of drinking too much wine. Sounds like Catch 22 to me.

Cultivation - Evening primrose is easily cultivated, it grows in many English gardens, and was one of my mother's favourite plants, she could never bear to pull one up even when it had seeded itself in the wrong place. It prefers acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) well-drained, sandy soils and requires full sun, however it will thrive in almost any soil or situation, being perfectly hardy. It provides a wonderful splash of summer colour in anyone's garden and the flowers attract pollinating insects, along with moths and bats. The seeds are also a good food source for birds.

If planting by seed it requires light to germinate so they should be scattered on the soil surface and tamped lightly. Watering and freezing the seeds may help in germination by cracking the seed coats. It should be kept free from weeds as it doesn't compete well with other plants. The roots grow deep into the ground and care should be taken not to break them in removing. It takes 15-30 days for propogation. Seeds may also be sown in cold frames in autumn for planting out the following year.

It is effectively a wild plant and if the plants are once introduced and the seeds permitted to scatter, you may find it a bit too successful.

Harvesting, preparation and storage - The seeds ripen from August to October and should be collected when ripe and pressed for oil. To be effective the seeds should contain 30-40% moisture. Pick the flowers in full bloom, but be quick as they die off the next day. Gather the leaves and stem "bark" when the flowering stems have grown. Dig up the roots in the second year. The seeds and leaves can be dried.

Culinary Uses - Believe it or not it seems as though every part of this plant can be used. The leaves can be cooked and eaten as greens. The roots can be boiled like potatoes and allegedly taste like sweet parsnips. The flowers are sweet and can be used in salads or as a pretty garnish. The young seedpods can be steamed and the ripe seeds can be roasted in an oven for 15 to 20 min. at 350° and used on bread or in salads. You can also sprinkle the roasted seeds over any dish like pepper.

Magical Uses -

Successful hunting.

Other Uses - The oil from the seed is added to toiletries and cosmetics. It is often combined with vitamin E to prevent oxidation. And a finely ground powder made from the flowering stems is used cosmetically in face-masks to counteract reddened skins. A yellow dye can be obtained from the flowers.


Culpeper: on the primrose family "as fine a salve to heal wounds as any that I know".

Pursh: "frequently observed a singularity in this plant, and it might be interesting to make further inquiry into its cause; it is that in a dark night, when no objects can be distinguished at an inconsiderable distance, this plant, when in full flower, can be seen at a great distance, having a bright white appearance, which probably may arise from some phosphoric properties of the flowers." ( King's American Dispensatory , Felter and Lloyd, 18th Edition, 1898)

Millspaugh: "That the petals do emit light on a dark night is not fanciful; still it is not due to a property of giving out spontaneous light (phosphorescence), but to a process of storing up sunlight during the day, and retaining it at night--a property identical with that exhibited by hepar sulphuris calcarea (calcined oyster shells), and the sulphides of barium and strontium." ( American Medicinal Plants , reprinted 1974).