Cowslip Primula veris

Status Green - Least concern
Best Time to See April, May
Colour Yellow
Habitat Grassland

"In a cowslip’s bell I lie"

- William Shakespeare, "The Tempest"

Description

One of the best known spring flowers, cowslips are both an adornment of pastures and banks and a nostalgic symbol of the once flower-rich pastures of rural England.

The cup-shaped flowers grow in nodding clusters on tall stalks. The leaves are oval with relatively wrinkled edges similar to the Primrose, but narrowing more abruptly into the stalk.

Where it grows

Open woods, grassy places, meadows, pastures and roadsides. They tend to favour rank grasses and scrub than amongst large numbers of spring-grazing sheep.

Best time to see

April to May.

Cultural info

  • County Flower of Northamptonshire, Worcestershire and Surrey.
  • In the Language of Flowers it symbolises comeliness and winning grace

How is it doing?

Its cultural history suggests that it was once as common as the buttercup. Suffered a decline between 1930 and 1980, mainly due to the loss of the grasslands where it grows. It's dramatic decline in the 1950s was due to the relentless advance of modern farming, particularly the ploughing of old grassland and the extension of the use of chemical herbicides. It is now showing signs of recovery. It has begun to return to unsprayed verges and village greens as well as colonising the banks of new roads. It has probably been assisted by the scattering of wildflower seed mixtures. Vast masses have reappeared in Hertfordsire where grazing pressures have eased.

Did you know?

  • Cowslip allegedly means cowpat! Our ancestors noted that they tended to flower where a cow had ‘slupped'.
  • As an early spring flower, it is closely associated with much English folklore and tradition, including being strewn on church paths for weddings and adorning garlands for May Day.
  • In addition to The Tempest, the ‘freckled cowslip' also appears in Shakespeare's Henry V as a sign of a well-managed pasture.
  • Its scent is not dissimilar to that of an apricot. Richard Mabey describes the scent as faintly fruity and dill-like.
  • Tea made from the flowers is meant to be good for insomnia, headaches and nervous tension. The scented flowers also make delicious wines.
  • Some of the many enchanting vernacular names include Freckled face, Golden drops, Bunch of keys, Fairies' flower, Lady's fingers, Long legs and Milk maidens. Welsh names include dagrau Mair, 'Mary's tears'. Paigle is another name used rather indiscriminately for any wild primula.
  • The nodding flowers suggests the bunch of keys which were the badge of St. Peter. One legend is that Peter was told that a duplicate key to Heaven had been made and therefore let his keys drop. The Cowslip broke from the ground where the keys fell.
  • They share their family's tendency to produce a profusion of variations including the variety known to gardeners as 'Devon Red' and orange-flowered forms.