Excuse Me Young Man…But That’s An Oxlip


“The learn’d is happy to explore, The fool is happy that he knows no more.”                                          Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Middle age and self-confidence are a potent cocktail and when consumed on a regular basis they often lead to a unique form of intoxication , known as arrogance. This personal delusion is not easily remedied as the cure usually involves a painful epiphany – one that reveals to us that we are not as talented as we believe ourselves to be. There is, of course, a quick fix for all this nonsense…that being a strong dose of good old-fashioned humility. Mine came in the form of a little old lady (she was quite literally an elderly woman with a petite frame) who had spent a lifetime collecting primula. This epiphany incarnate was neither arrogant nor rude, she simply knew exactly what she was talking about.

To be fair to myself, it was a much more subtle indiscretion than the photograph seems to indicate – as the Oxlip in question had stumbled into a flat of Primula veris or Cowslip. What is the difference between an Oxlip and a Cowslip, you ask? In a tray of juvenile plants it was nothing more than a shade of yellow and a few centimeters in height, but to the trained eye, it was a world of difference and that discerning vision happened to belong to an elderly woman in her late 60’s or early 70’s – a person whom I had never met before, or since, for that matter. She gravitated towards the primula section like a bee to heather in bloom, and hovered for perhaps all of ten minutes – always returning to the flat in question.

Finally, she called me over very politely…”Excuse me, young man”. When I arrived she lifted the offending pot and repeated “Excuse me, young man”, adding “but that’s an Oxlip or Primula elatior, not a Cowslip”. There was no guile or sarcasm in her tone as she simply seemed to be stating a fact. Thinking I had more important things to do, I decided to pacify her (without taking a good look at the plant itself) by reading the tag. Sure enough, it read Primula veris – so I suggested to her that the slight variation of colour and height might be attributed to a mutation or sport. She looked me straight in the eye for a few moments, slid her glasses down the bridge of her nose and replied rather dryly and with some emphasis on her diction, “that…is no…such thing”.

The awkward silence that followed made it obvious to both of us that my educated guess was really nothing more than a ruse – but what had me really concerned was her next move. Would she slap a proverbial checkmate against my already reddened cheeks or would she choose to prolong the pain by challenging my horticultural pawns one by one, until all my weak excuses were finally laid bare for all to see.

To my great relief, she did neither – instead, she calmly pushed her glasses back into place, looked me straight in the eye again and kindly suggested that it might be best to remove the misleading tag. It took a few seconds to sink in because, quite frankly, I was expecting the worse, but once I realized that I had been the recipient of a ‘get out of jail free card’, I meekly accepted her terms. She responded by smiling in a very grandmotherly fashion and wishing me a good afternoon, after which, she left the nursery. To this day, I can still remember the lingering aftertaste of that particular slice of humble pie and it has kept me a more honest gardener.

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2 Responses to Excuse Me Young Man…But That’s An Oxlip

  1. C.McKee says:

    I really enjoy these kinds of stories. Gardeners can be special and passionate! Going on to read more of your tales.

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