Cowslip is an early flowering meadow perennial once very common in meadows and pastures, hedge-banks and railway embankments on chalk and limestone soils throughout Britain, though rare in north west Scotland. It is less widespread today as a result of modern agricultural techniques though in more recent years it has been planted and encouraged in some areas where it has now become more common. Cowslip has umbels of small, dark yellow flowers on stalks growing from a rosette of leaves that are similar to the leaves of its close relative, primrose
. Cowslip was first formally recorded in 1568 by William Turner.1.
Richly associated with plant folklore, cowslips were once so abundant they could be collected to make generous bunches or intricately-tied into cowslip balls as toys. In Victorian times in Lambley, Nottinghamshire, the first Sunday in May was celebrated as Cowslip Sunday.2. In rural areas cowslips were harvested to make wine – perhaps as common as dandelions which are still collected today to make dandelion wine. Recipes exist from the 17th century for cowslip wines, syrups, pickles, vinegars and meads. As a herb, cowslip leaves and flowers were eaten in salads.3. Cowslip was used medicinally too – as a remedy for headaches, or joint pains, and cosmetically as a face cream or face wash.4. Not only were they useful, but appreciated for their beauty and were amongst Thomas Tusser’s list of decorative plants for pots and windows.5.
Cowslips are strong competitors with grass and are best grown in groups in lawns, meadows, lawn edges, pond-sides and more formally in borders and rock gardens. They are easily propagated by seed, sown in autumn for planting out the following spring. Once established they will spread and provide a fragrant area of the garden.
Cowslip is a good source of nectar for early flying insects including bumblebees and butterflies such as the brimstone butterfly Gonepteryx rhamni
. It is also frequently visited by pollen beetles
such as Meligethes aeneus
. Together with primrose, cowslip is the food plant for the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly Hamearis lucina6.
and one of the food plants for polyphageous moths such as the lunar yellow-underwing Noctua orbona
, a rare species confined to the south and East Anglia and the plain clay Eugnorisma depuncta
, a fairly local species of central and eastern Scotland.7.
1. Pearman, D. (2017). The Discovery of the Native Flora of Britain and Ireland, A compilation of the first records for 1670 species and aggregates, covering Great Britain, Ireland, The Channel Isles and the Isle of Man. Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland.. p 325
2. Vickery, R. (2019). Vickery’s Folk Flora, An A to Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. p 176
3.Michael, P.A.(1986). A Country Harvest. Peerage Books. p 133
4.Inglis, B.D. (1958). Wild Flowers of Britain. Thomas Nelson and Sons. London. p 33
5.Mavor, W.F. ed. Tusser,T. (1819) Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry together with a Book of Huswifery. Cambridge Library Collection. Cambridge University Press.p 122
6.See the Biological Record Centre database
Page written by Caroline Ware. Compiled by Steve Head