Roger Ratcliffe: Why the white rose may not be best choice as our Yorkshire symbol

Is the White Rose the best emblem for Yorkshire?
Is the White Rose the best emblem for Yorkshire?
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Back in the 1920s the poet and naturalist Geoffrey Grigson went straight from Oxford to a reporting job in the London office of The Yorkshire Post.

But his professional interest in the Three Ridings led him to commit what for many was an act of heresy, or even – bearing in mind his employer – almost one of high treason.

Grigson wrote that while he had nothing against the choice of the white rose as the symbol of the historic county of Yorkshire, it should not represent the area that was then known as the West Riding, which comprised most of today’s West Yorkshire and a sizeable chunk of North Yorkshire.

A greater claim to that role, he suggested, was owned by the bird’s-eye primrose.

At the risk of being pilloried, I think he had a point. Anyone who visits the Three Peaks area of the Yorkshire Dales in May and June will find this lovely pink or often violet-blue flower growing profusely.

For this reason, the plant is sometimes referred to as the “Yorkshire primrose”.

It is much smaller than Yorkshire’s official emblem, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty with its ten-inch stalks bearing clusters of up to 20 different flowers. It is one of the most beautiful plants in Britain.

Classic bird’s-eye primrose conditions are usually what’s known as upland flushes, fens and swamps where the soil is waterlogged and the water table is close to the surface for much of the year.

As for the white rose, the reason it is so dear to the historic Three Ridings of Yorkshire is lost in the mists of time.

One story has it that the first Duke of York, Edmund of Langley (1341-1402), chose the native British wild rose as the emblem of the House of York, a flower which despite being undeniably pretty has the somewhat lacklustre common name of dog rose.

Botanists, however, favour the explanation that the official white rose is, in fact, merely a hybrid of the native field rose Rosa arvensis and the damask rose Rosa x damascena thought to have been introduced to Britain by the Crusaders sometime in the late 13th century.

Some trace the white rose connection back to William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, in which he had the rival Dukes of York and Lancashire choosing white and red roses from a garden.

And it seems no one had heard the expression “the Wars of the Roses” before Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe.

Grigson believed the adoption of the bird’s-eye primrose (Primula farinosa) as the West Riding of Yorkshire’s emblem was easier to justify since it is 
the characteristic flower of the area’s limestone dales in springtime.

Certainly, at the weekend it was well-established on 
the north-west side of Ingleborough, growing close to the area’s famous limestone pavements because of the lime-rich water.

I have also seen it around Malhamdale and in less-visited but no less beautiful Crummack Dale.