Cowslip (Primula veris)
The common name of this sunny little plant gives us a clue as to its natural habitat. Cowslip is thought to come from the old English for cow dung, probably because the plant was frequently found growing in cow pastures. An alternate derivation simply refers to moist or boggy ground; again an ideal habitat for this yellow wildflower.
An evergreen or semi-evergreen plant, the cowslip flowers in the spring, producing small yellow flowers measuring around 10-15mm across. The blooms are produced in clusters of between 10 to 30 flowers to a single stem, with the plant itself growing to around 25cm tall and broad. Red or orange flowered cowslips are rare, but can be widespread in small areas due to cross-pollination.
One of the nation’s best-loved native species, the cowslip is making a resurgence after suffering a serious depletion in numbers during the 1970s. Changing agricultural practices in the 1970s and 80s put this little plant in jeopardy, but the inclusion of cowslip seeds in wildflower mixes, as well as in products such as Meadowmat, mean the plant is making a good comeback. Now the little yellow heads of the cowslip can be seen nodding on grass verges and motorway embankments the length and breadth of the country during April, May and June.
The common cowslip features on the RHS Perfect for Pollinators list as a wildflower essential for supporting flying insects such as bees and hoverflies. As well as being a rich source of nectar, the flowers are also the larval host plant for the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly. The larvae of this endangered butterfly feed on cowslips and primroses before transposing to winged adults in May and June.
The cowslip is greatly prized for its scent, which is not dissimilar to apricot, and is widely used in the perfume industry. The pretty yellow flowers can also be used to produce cowslip wine.
Cowslips in culture
- The humble cowslip is the county flower of Northamptonshire, Surrey and Worcestershire.
- In the Victorian ‘language of flowers’ the cowslip was given to represent winning grace, youth, pensiveness, rusticity or healing.
- The ‘freckled cowslip’ appears in Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a symbol of a well-managed pasture.
- Strongly linked to English folklore, cowslip flowers are traditionally used to adorn May Day garlands, and for being strewn on church paths to celebrate weddings.