Herb to Know: Cowslip

The many uses of cowslip from growing, cooking to healing.

| February/March 2000

“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.

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