Paschal is not a very common word in English: it means “of Easter”, from the Latin word for the festival, Pascha, which has passed into Romance languages as Pâques in French, Pascua in Spanish and Pasqua in Italian; the commonest use of the English adjective is in “The Paschal Lamb”.
But there is another, even lesser-known, use in English of the “pasc” root associated with the four-day Christian celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection, which begins today, Maundy Thursday; and it refers to one of our loveliest and rarest wild flowers.
The pasque flower is magnificent, head-turning, even – royal purple petals surrounding bright yellow stamens – but it has declined so much in its distribution and range that it is now found in fewer than 20 places in the country.
A relative of the anemones, sometimes known as the anemone of Passiontide, it was once fairly common on chalk and limestone grassland, but its natural habitat has been widely ploughed up and has become so fragmented that the flower exists only in scattered “islands” in the landscape.
One such is the curiously-named Barnack Hills and Holes National Nature Reserve, near the village of Barnack in Cambridgeshire, a surviving corner of the natural grassland which used to stretch for miles in all directions: I saw it there in all its glory a few years ago.
The pasque flower would indeed flower at Easter, if Easter were later than it is this year, and the whole advent of spring had not been held back by a month by the frozen March of 2013; but strangely, perhaps, it is the only British wild flower with a reference to Easter in its common name.
Yet if we are looking for Easter flowers, there are other prominent candidates; some have their Easter associations hidden within them, as it were. Speedwells, which are small flowers of intense blue, such as the germander or bird’s-eye speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys, refer in their Latin generic name to Saint Veronica, the poor woman of Jerusalem who gave Jesus her veil so that he might wipe his face while he was carrying the cross on the way to crucifixion. The blue flowers were meant to represent Christ’s eyes, and to be a sign that the plant had healing properties; the English name refers to its hoped-for effect on us.
Primroses, the “first rose”, were long used as Easter decorations in churches and their petals were used to decorate Easter eggs; while the Easter lily is often thought of as the most common association between feast and flower, although the bloom most associated with the symbolism is the exquisite Madonna lily, Lilium candidum, which grows wild in the Mediterranean, but not in Britain.
The nearest we have is lily of the valley, found in woods on limestone in the north, which tends to flower later than Easter – in France, it is the symbol of May Day – although it does have Easter associations: it has also been known as Our Lady’s tears from the legend that the small white globular flowers first sprang from the weeping of the Virgin Mary watching Christ’s agony on the cross. (Daffodils, it should be remarked, are not true lilies, although they were long known as Lent lilies, and legend had it that the end of Lent, the day before Easter, was the day when they would fade.)
Easter’s approach makes me think of all these flowers bursting out, not least because it is the festival of resurrection. To most people in this post-Christian world it may no longer mean the resurrection of Christ; but it seems to me a great loss that to the nation as a whole, it is now just seen as a five-day spring break. There is another resurrection Easter marks, that of the natural world after the deadness of winter, and in the coldest early spring in half a century, it will seem more miraculous and more to be celebrated than ever, when it finally comes – as soon it will.
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