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The cowslip, scientific name Primula Veris, is a wildflower that belongs to the primrose family. It also goes by the name common cowslip, cowslip primrose, key flower, and flower of heaven. It is the county flower of Surrey, Worcestershire, and Northamptonshire.

What Does a Cowslip Look Like?

The cowslip flower is typically a deep yellow colour, with five petals. However, cowslips can come in varying shades of pink and white and are typically two to three inches across.

Each has a unique shape; the more common variant has several lobes that form an irregular star shape, although some cowslips grow tubular flowers instead of star-shaped flowers.

At the base of each cowslip is a pair of leaves that look like large ears or wings that curve down and appear to hold up the rest of the flower.

Spring wildflowers - Primula veris
Primula veris

What Does Cowslip Smell Like?

Cowslips have a musky smell, similar to vanilla extract.

Typical Habitat

The cowslip flower tends to be found growing in cow pastures or moist areas such as slippery or boggy ground, fields and meadows. It can often be spotted growing alongside the wild rose, primroses and other primulas.

In spring, primrose (Primula veris) blooms in the wild
In spring, primrose (Primula veris) blooms in the wild

History Of The Cowslip Flower

Although cowslip was first documented as a medicinal herb back during Roman rule, it has since evolved into a popular garden plant throughout Europe and other parts of the world. Though cowslips are now sold commercially as cut flowers, they can still be found freely growing around ditches and roadsides.

Why Are They Called Cowslips?

There are several explanations for how cowslips got their name. The most common story is that cows once ate cowslip flowers, and the cows liked the taste so much that they trampled over everything else to get to them.

Another explanation is that cowslips were named after cows because they attract flies. Flies mistake cows’ milk for nectar and congregate around cows to drink it while also spreading pollen from flower to flower in the process.

Additionally, the common name cowslip is old English for cow dung.

Possible Confusion With Other Plants

Cowslip Or Primrose?

A primrose (primula vulgaris) and a cowslip (primula veris) both look very similar. But, what is the difference between primrose and cowslip? Primroses are usually yellow or pink. They grow in the early spring and can be found in alpine meadows.

Cowslips, on the other hand, have a number of smaller, bell-shaped flowers attached to a stem which are held high above the plant.

Also, primrose leaves have a gentle taper, while the cowslip leaf has a quicker taper, which leaves a narrow leaf area towards the base.

Yellow primrose (primula vulgaris)
Yellow primrose (primula vulgaris)

Cowslip Or Oxlip?

The much rarer plant known as the oxlip can be differentiated from cowslip in a number of ways. The first being the cowslip has a leaf that tapers quickly, whereas the oxlip leaf tapers gradually. Another way to differentiate between cowslip and oxlip is by looking at the stalk – cowslips will have one single flower on its stem, while an oxlip will have two smaller cowslip flowers along with one primrose at the top of the stem.

Oxlip (primula elatior)
Oxlip (primula elatior)

When Do Cowslips Flower?

The cowslip is one of the first spring flowers to appear, and it peaks in May. It is often associated with Mother’s Day and weddings since its appearance coincides with many important events during the year.

Most cowslips flower between late February and early April, depending on where they grow; cowslips that grow further away from human development bloom later than those near busy streets or people’s yards.

Cowslips flower before daffodils, which come later in May. Daffodils also fade as dandelions begin to bloom at the end of May and into June. It has a very short flowering period – only about two weeks – relying on bees for pollination.

Is The Cowslip Flower Poisonous?

No, cowslips are not poisonous to people or cows. However, cows should never be fed cowslips because these wildflowers contain a chemical that is toxic to them.

It has no known harmful effects on humans unless consumed in large quantities over long periods. Many herbalists use the leaves as part of arthritis treatment regimens.

Also, cowslip extract is sometimes used for cosmetic purposes because it contains compounds that tighten skin and reduce skin redness caused by irritation.

Some people eat cowslips cooked and is often found in Spanish cooking. The taste is slightly citrus-like.

Cup of Primula veris tea
Cup of primula veris tea

Are Cowslips Protected?

Cowslips should never be picked from areas that are known as cowslip plant habitats or protected areas such as nature reserves and national parks. Harvesting cowslips that grow in these areas is strictly prohibited, and offenders could face heavy fines if caught.

Occasionally, it is possible to buy cowslip leaves and flowers at some farmers’ markets, but always make sure you know exactly where the plants were grown before buying them.

Sources and References

  1. Cowslip (primula veris) – plantlife.org.uk
  2. Information On Cowslip – wildflowersofireland.net

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