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!
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.
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