COWSLIP – Primula veris: Primulaceae
The plant: Commonly seen in areas where primroses grow – hedgerows, embankments (especially old railways embankments), undisturbed meadows – particularly on chalky/limestone soils. There has been a decline in recent years, possibly due to the cutting of grass verges or over harvesting of the plants for wine. Until the 16th century there was confusion over whether the primrose should bear the name of primula veris or whether the cowslip should do so. The cowslip won the day! They can grow to about 25cm although may be much smaller. Where present there can be very many.
The flowers: These are bell-shaped and hang down in bunches, or umbels, from the end of a stalk. There can be as many as thirty flowers on each stem, although usually many fewer flowers are seen. They are usually about ten cm. across and appear in the spring time – about April.
The leaves: The leaves are basal on the plant and appear like a rosette. They are roughly oval in shape and can be quite long, wrinkly and covered in a fine down of hairs. They taper towards the tip.
Names, mythology, uses and folk-lore: There is a variety of historical and local names. The name we know it by presently may have come from its association with cow dung – or cu sloppe/slyppe in 0ld English. Other names include fairy cups and cow slap. Grigson gives a splendid list of names from all over the country. Predominating in these are references to Peter and to keys. One name for the cowslip is paigle, or key. Legend has it that St Peter, on being told that a duplicate key had been discovered for heaven, dropped his key in shock – and where it landed the cowslip grew. In German an old name is Himmelschlüssel (key of heaven). A fifteenth century use of the cowslip was to boil it in water and then drink the liquid in order to “cure” the “tremblynge hand” – this resulted in another name – palsywort. Almost certainly this was a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. In common with the primrose a fine and delicate country wine can be made from cowslips. Shakespeare refers to the cowslip and its fairy associations in The Tempest when the following words are given to Ariel: Where the bee sucks there suck I, In a cowslip bell I lie………