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Plant of the Month - Cowslip

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

The Cowslip

The Cowslip, Primula veris, was once as common in the British countryside as the buttercup. But changes in farming practises meant its decline between 1930-80, use of herbicides during the 1950’s dealt another blow to this iconic flower. However, it is now showing signs of recovery on unsprayed verges, village greens and the steep banks of roadways where it is left undisturbed.

I found two explanations for its name, both of course linked to cattle; one related to cowpats and the idea that the plants grew where a cow had ‘slupped’; the second was linked to the Saxon word cuslippe’ for the breath of a cow, this suggested that the perfume of the flowers was reminiscent of cows breath...maybe one to check out? Other common names are St Peter’s keys, Fair bells and Keys of Heaven, legend has it that St Peter dropped the keys to heaven when he heard that there had been another set made and where they fell this plant grew!

Tubular shaped flowers

This spring flower together, with other native Primula species, is an important nectar source for newly emerging insects. It is also a host food plants of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, a fairly uncommon species with distinctive chequered markings.

Primula veris flowers in spring usually March - May, although, in our garden this year we had blooms open in January. This herbaceous perennial is native throughout temperate Europe and is most commonly found in pastures, banks and open woodland.

Five petals with orange dots

The dark green leaves are 5-15cm long and grow in a basal rosette formation and are similar to those of the primrose, wrinkled, spade shaped but, unlike the latter, narrow at the base. Edges of the leaf are toothed, finely pubescent (hairy) both sides and they have a prominent cream coloured midrib. The nodding flowers are borne. on short pedicels (flower stalks) in groups of 4-5 at the apex of a scape (flower stem) 10 - 30cm long, held above the rosette of leaves. They are deep yellow and have five small petals which have indents at the top edge and orange dots inside the flower. They are joined to form a tube (corolla tube) which encloses the male and female sex organs.

They are pollinated by insects including the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) The flower is wrapped in a long green tube formed by the sepals (calyx tube) which have fine hairs and are toothed at the apex.

The fruits and seeds form during the summer and therefore it is vital that mowing and grazing are sensitive to this as with other wildflower meadows.

Medicinally, a tea made from the flowers has been used to make a tea to cure insomnia and nervous tension, syrups from various parts of the plant were used to treat respiratory problems.

Cowslips are often mistaken for the rare Oxlip (Primula elatior) however the latter can be distinguished by its larger pale yellow flowers.

Warning; Cowslips can cause allergic skin reactions.

Let's celebrate our native cowslip as the plant of the month.

Photos courtesy of Gaynor Dickeson

Elaine Allison 2019

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Mar 21, 2019

Spring is really on its way. The ABBA launch today and I have a cowslip flowering in my garden - thanks to the student who gave it to me.

Thank you too, Martin, for confirming that one plant I bought, labelled Primula veris, was none other than a Polyanthus and therefore wrongly labelled. You saved me making a fool of myself!


Unknown member
Mar 12, 2019

I have also read that they can be red, but because Primulas hybridise so readily it may not be the best criteria to use.


Martin Allen
Martin Allen
Mar 12, 2019

One of my floras suggests that the petals of cowslip are rarely red and although I've never seen that in the wild I have seen it in gardens with plants grown from a seed packet. Two or three times I have seen the hybrid between cowslip and primrose - called false oxlip. It has primrose-like flowers on a stalk like a polyanthus which is presumably why it's called Primula x polyantha.

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