“Where the bee sucks, there suck I; In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest, act 5, scene 1
A popular subject in English literature, beloved as a harbinger of spring, cowslip has been esteemed as an ingredient in wine, a food, a complexion aid, and a calmative.
The genus Primula, the primroses, comprises 400 species of perennial herbs native to the Northern Hemisphere and Ethiopia, as well as to the mountains of Java and New Guinea and southern South America. It grows in sunny meadows and hedgerows, on slopes, and in open oak woods from sea level to an altitude of about 6,600 feet.
Like that of other primroses, cowslip’s crown arises from a short rhizome. Evergreen or semievergreen, scalloped or irregularly toothed, slightly fuzzy, wrinkled leaves measuring up to 8 by 2 1/2 inches form a basal rosette. The leaf blade, which begins as a backward-rolled tight coil and then unfurls, is more or less ovate at the upper end, widening from a winged stalk at the basal end. The leaves stand erect when the plant is in flower but lean outward as the fruit ripens.
In April and May, a one-sided cluster of two to sixteen anise-scented flowers tops a fuzzy, 8-inch stalk arising from the basal rosette. The pale green, baggy, hairy calyces are more noticeable than the 1/2-inch-wide yellow corollas poking out their tops.
Each of the five petals has a scalloped edge and a red or orange spot at the base. The corolla varies from cup-shaped to flat-faced. Cowslip flowers are pollinated by bees, as Shakespeare reminds us. The fruit is a capsule about 3/4 inch long.
Cowslip has two types of flowers. Pin flowers have a long style and short stamens; the stigma (the structure at the tip of the style that receives the pollen) sits at the opening of the corolla while the pollen-bearing anthers atop the stamens lie deep within it. Thrum flowers have the opposite configuration: the stigma is down inside the corolla while the anthers lie at its mouth.
The two kinds of flowers produce different kinds of pollen. Each cowslip plant has either pin or thrum flowers, but not both. This arrangement fosters cross-pollination, as Charles Darwin discovered nearly 150 years ago when he hand-pollinated cowslip and other flowers exhibiting heterostyly (“styles of different kinds”). Maximum seed set occurred when pollen from a short-stamened anther contacted a short-styled stigma or when pollen from a long-stamened anther contacted a long-styled stigma. Other herbs showing this phenomenon include lungworts, sorrels, and bedstraws.
Several subspecies are separated by leaf, calyx, and petal shape. Cultivars include ‘Sunset Shades’ (shades of yellow and orange) and various forms with extra-large flowers. Herbal relatives include scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), also called poor man’s weatherglass, and moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia).
Other Names for Cowslip
The ancients appreciated cowslip as a harbinger of spring—Primula veris (“firstling of spring”) is the medieval Latin name of the plant. Actually, it’s not the first firstling among the primulas (“firstlings”): the English primrose (P. vulgaris) blooms slightly earlier.
It’s hard to believe that the person who gave cowslip its English common name cared for it in the same way as the one who so poetically dubbed it Primula veris. “Cowslip” apparently comes from the Old English cuslyppe. Cu means “cow,” and slyppe is a viscous or slimy substance; hence, “cow dung,” perhaps alluding to the plants’ occurrence in cow pastures or someone’s idea that the rosettes looked like green cow flops dotting the meadows.
In this country, the name cowslip has been applied to marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), and Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica), all of them “firstlings of spring.”
Many of cowslip’s other common names—keyflower, key of heaven, Our Lady’s keys—refer to the flower cluster’s supposed resemblance to a bunch of keys, particularly those of St. Peter. Herb Peter refers to St. Peter himself. An older dedication of the flowers to the Norse goddess Freya, the Key Virgin, was later transformed into dedication to the Virgin Mary.
A few names—arthritica, palsywort, paralysio—allude to medicinal uses. Still other names are even more cryptic than cowslip: artetyke, crewel, buckles, plumrocks, password, petty mulleins. The plethora of common names—and these are only the English ones—attests to the great popularity of this modest herb in centuries past.
Medicinal Uses for Cowslip
Cowslip root, or radix arthritica, was used in eighteenth-century England to treat rheumatism, relieve pain in the bladder, and, when boiled in ale, alleviate nervous conditions. An ointment of cowslip leaves and lard was a remedy for wrinkles and sunburn. (Handling the plants can cause dermatitis, however.) The spots on the petals surely must have signaled the plant’s usefulness in removing freckles.
A syrup of the corollas was thought to strengthen the nerves and the brain and relieve restlessness, insomnia, headache, and palsy. Cowslip flower water was held to be good for the memory and—externally—for the skin. Cowslip has also been used to treat bronchitis.
Although the flowers and roots contain saponins, which are expectorants, and the roots contain salicylates, which can relieve pain and fever, no scientific studies confirm cowslip’s efficacy in treating any of the conditions for which it has traditionally been used.
Culinary Uses for Cowslip
The leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked as a vegetable. The flowers may be eaten fresh with cream, candied, or brewed into tea.
Cowslip wine, made from the yellow petal rings (“peeps”) together with sugar, lemon rind and juice, water, and yeast, was considered an excellent sedative and, in small quantities, children’s medicine. A batch of wine required a gallon of peeps or hundreds of flowers from dozens of plants, however. These days, overcollecting and habitat destruction have made cowslips too rare to harvest for wine in most areas; in England, they have made a recent comeback thanks to the inclusion of their seeds in wildflower meadow (“amenity”) seed mixes.
Cowslip prefers moist but well-drained neutral or acidic soil in full sun or part shade (especially where summers are hot). To cover a broad area with cowslips, start with several plants to increase your chances of having both pin and thrum flower types for maximum seed production. Plants will self-seed under favorable conditions.
Starting cowslips from seed is easy. Direct-sow seeds in summer as soon as they’re ripe or sow stored seeds in fall or spring in moist, sandy soil enriched with organic matter. Germination of dry-stored seeds started indoors is greatly enhanced if the sown seeds are refrigerated for a few weeks.
Divide established plants in the fall.
• Carroll Gardens, 444 E. Main St., Westminster, MD 21157. (800) 638-6334. Catalog $3. Plants.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. (541) 846-7357. Catalog $1. Plants.
• J. L. Hudson, Seedsman, Star Rt. 2, Box 337, La Honda, CA 94020. Catalog $1. Seeds.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. (905) 640-6677. Catalog free. Plants, seeds.