Wednesday Weed – Cowslip

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Cowslip (Primula vernis)

Cowslip (Primula vernis)

Dear Readers, on April Fool’s Day I headed out to a new cemetery with my botanical friend, to see what we could find. Unlike St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, which has bramble tangles and secret, woody places, East Finchley Cemetery is well manicured and full of splendid Victorian memorials, like the ones below.

IMG_1808IMG_1811So, we were not hoping for much in the way of wild flowers. A man was wandering around in a desultory fashion, waving a leaf blower in spite of no leaf having the audacity to fall on those bowling-green lawns. The noise was ear-splitting. In an attempt to get away from the racket, we headed ‘off-piste’ to explore an area behind a row of well-tended graves, and there we found our reward.

IMG_1800Cowslips are not the first primulas to come into flower – the Common Primrose has that honour. But what a splendid plant it is. Each stem can hold up to thirty blooms, which seem to erupt in a yellow fountain. The pale, soft green of the calyx sets off the gold of petals and the five apricot-coloured  spots at the heart of the flower. The plant is said to smell of apricots too, but as usual I forgot to check this out. If you see some, have a good sniff and let me know.

IMG_1802Once upon a time, our fields and meadows were full of Cowslips – the name refers to them being found amongst cowpats. People made cowslip wine, and for a most excellent recipe, described by one Mr Moxon as ‘right good’ back in 1764, have a look here. The path of a bridal couple was strewn with cowslips, and young women wove them into their hair on May Day. But, as with so many of our country wildflowers, they were soon to be pushed to the margins by changes in agricultural practices. Old grassland was ploughed up, meadows drained, and everything was sprayed with herbicide, including some field margins and roadsides. The ‘freckle-face’ of the Cowslip was soon a rarity, and so was the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, whose caterpillars feed on Cowslip.

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina)

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina)

So, it was a great pleasure to find this cowslip here, lonely as it was. Cemeteries and churchyards are sanctuaries for all manner of wild plants and animals, and more and more of these sites are being managed with this in mind. And we are not as laissez-faire with the chemicals as we once were, which is just as well, bearing in mind their effects on everything, from bees to humans, who came into contact with them.

Cowslips are woven into the history of the British Isles. Shakespeare mentions it in The Tempest, as the bed of Arial:

‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.’

John Milton also writes of the plant, in his Song of a May Morning:

‘Now the bright morning star, day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flowering May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.’

Spring flowers must have been welcomed with a very special kind of relief, in the days when you could never be sure if your winter supplies would last until the warm weather returned. To me, the Cowslip is a sign that the world has turned towards the sun again, but in earlier, harder times there must have been a feeling of joy that the cold and the dark had been survived. No wonder May Day was such a celebration.

IMG_1803Cowslips have also been used for their medicinal properties, as you might expect from a plant that has grown beside us for so long. It was believed that a lotion made from Cowslips would remove wrinkles and freckles, with maybe an indication of the old ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ – the plant has little orange freckles in its flowers, so maybe it will help us to remove them! It was believed to be sedative, to be good for coughs and for rheumatic pain, and no less a person than Hildegard of Bingen recommended using the leaves to make ointment.

Occasionally, a red-flowered Cowslip is found, and there is a belief that this is because the seed was planted upside down. How you would know which way up it was supposed to go puzzles me somewhat, but the plant is very different in its red form, bold and defiant.

Red-flowered Cowslip ("Red flowered cowslip" by User:Jasper33 - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

Red-flowered Cowslip (“Red flowered cowslip” by User:Jasper33  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The Cowslip is considered a magical plant in other ways, too. The Cowslip is supposed to be able to open the doors of caves filled with hidden treasure. To dream of a Cowslip is a sign of unexpected good luck. In the language of flowers, it symbolises ‘comeliness and willing grace’. And furthermore, it is, apparently, the birthday flower for 22nd September, which is my wedding anniversary.

No wonder I love it, and was so delighted to see it so unexpectedly last week. I hope that it will continue its fightback, and that soon our churchyards and field-edges and ‘waste ground’ will be full of it.

A Cowslip carpet in Cambridgeshire - paths have been made around the meadow to protect the plants. (© Copyright Bob Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

A Cowslip carpet in Cambridgeshire – paths have been made around the meadow to protect the plants.(© Copyright Bob Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)



7 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Cowslip

  1. Laurin Lindsey

    What a remarkable flower (plant) with such a rich history! I love the sunny yellow and lovely little petals. It is wonderful that they have survived all our over manicured gardening practices. I would welcome them in my garden!

    1. Bug Woman

      I would love them too, Laurin, but they are really plants of chalky soil and sunny meadows. I was very surprised to see one in the Cemetery, where the soil is heavy clay. They are gorgeous, nodding away in the breeze…

  2. Louise

    The Olympic Park is full of them at the moment and they are an absolute delight! Growing up in Lincolnshire we were taught to revere the cowslip as something quite special and forbidden to pick them, so it’s nice to see them reintroduced in such numbers, and in the city too!

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Louise, I’ve been meaning to have a trip to the Olympic Park to see how the wildlife-friendly planting is getting on – watch this space for a ‘Bugwoman on Location’ post soon. I love cowslips too….they seem so much part of the British florascape. It would be great if they staged a comeback….

      1. Ann

        Apparently the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary (think it’s that one) omits a great many natural history words such as ‘acorn’ and…yes, ‘cowslip’, as meaningless to modern children.

  3. Bug Woman

    It’s awful, isn’t it. I wonder who makes these decisions? At a time when we need to be more engaged with the natural world, not less, children are losing the words that help to explain and identify the plants and animals around them.

  4. Pingback: This is not a cat blog, but….. | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

Leave a Reply