The cowslip was once a common and familiar plant of spring meadows. However, it has declined considerably due to agricultural improvements, but more recently has been included in wildflower seed mixes sown along new road verges. The bunched arrangement of the nodding flowers earned the species local names like 'bunch of keys' and 'culverkeys'.
The Latin name Primula veris comes from “primus”, meaning first, and “veris” meaning spring, so it is one of the first plants to flower in spring.
The cowslip is a perennial, flowering from April to June.
Quite early in the spring, the small underground rhizome begins to produce its leaves. The first two emerge as two tight coils, rolled backwards. These slowly unroll to show a short round leaves. More leaves appear, producing a basal rosette of crinkled green leaves which are covered on both sides with a fine layer of downy hairs. From this, a downy flower stalk rises to a height of up to 30cm, and is topped with a cluster of 1-30 yellow or buff-coloured flowers. The flowers each have separate little stalks starting from a single point on the main stem, and thus form an 'umbel.' The number of the flowers in an umbel varies considerably. Individual flowers are funnel-shaped and have characteristic orange spots at the base of the lobes. Behind the flowers, the sepals form a cup, which later holds the seeds.
The cowslip grows in glades and clearings, hayfields and also in mountainous regions. It is found in well-drained, herb-rich grasslands, and may occasionally occur in scrub or woodland edges or clearings, on seasonally flooded areas (eg water meadows) and on cliff-top grassland providing the soil is not too acidic.
The species has declined due to widespread agricultural improvement, with the use of herbicides or ploughing of grasslands. Herbicides were also used on waysides until the 1980s. Roadside verges, particularly along motorways and main roads, are nowadays often planted with wildflower mixes, and cowslips are making a come-back. Cowslips have also returned to areas where grazing has been greatly reduced, and a number of churchyards are being managed for wildlife, allowing a resurgence of this well-loved and cheering spring flower
Although it suffered a dramatic decline between 1930 and 1980, the cowslip remains fairly widespread throughout Britain, but is absent from most of Scotland. In Europe it occurs to the north of the Alps.
When cowslips were abundant, they were in demand for both food and medicine as they have sedative and anti-spasmodic properties. In particular, they were said to strengthen the nerves and the brain, relieving restlessness and insomnia.
Young Cowslip leaves were included in salads, and were also mixed with other herbs to make stuffing for meat dishes. The flowers were mixed with white sugar to make a delicate conserve, which was said to “make an excellent and refreshing dish”.
The flowers have been put to various uses as they have a very distinctive fragrance and somewhat narcotic juices. They were thought to be 'good for the nerves and brain'. In the English Midlands, they are still used in the “fermented liquor called Cowslip Wine” which had quite a well-deserved reputation. Cowslip Wine, given in small doses as a medicine, was considered particularly beneficial in the treatment of some childhood ailments.
However, the cowslip also contains salicylants, which are the basis of aspirin, so is not recommended to those who are allergic to aspirins. It is also not recommended for people on anticoagulant treatments or for pregnant women. It can be used, however by women who breastfeed because cowslip tea stimulates lactation.
Shakespeare’s "Midsummer Night's Dream" refers to an old belief that the flower did wonders for the complexion. Old herbals contain many recipes for ointments and cosmetics made from both flowers and roots.