Quick facts

Common name: cowslip

Scientific name: Primula veris

Family: Primroses

Origin: native

Flowering season: April to May

Habitat: grassland, woodland, ancient woodland, hedgerows

What does cowslip look like?

Cowslip is an attractive flowering plant found in meadows and on woodland floors.

Leaves: dark green and wrinkled, and quite wide but narrow towards the end. The leaf edges are toothed, and a light cream-green vein can clearly be seen in the centre of the leaf. They grow in a basal rosette formation.

Flowers: bright yellow, bell-shaped flowers that have five petals with small indents on the top edge of each petal. The flowers are enclosed by a long, green, tube-shaped calyx (protective flower casing) and are found in clusters on each plant, all facing to one side.

Not to be confused with: oxlip (Primula elatior) which, though similar looking, has paler yellow flowers that open out further. Leaves are also very similar in shape but stop sharply by the base and don’t taper. Oxlips are also a much rarer plant, being found only in East Anglia. False oxlip (Primula veris x vulgaris), is a hybrid of cowslip and primrose so might be confused with those species. However, it is taller than cowslip and its flower clusters are not one-sided unlike the oxlip or cowslip.

Cowslips and green-winged orchids

Credit: Colin Varndell / naturepl.com

Where to find cowslip

Cowslips are present across the UK. Look for them in meadows, grassland, woodland and verges as well as in gardens. They thrive on dry, calcareous (chalky) soils and flower between April and May.

Cowslip buff-tailed bumblebee

Credit: Stephen Dalton / naturepl.com

Value to wildlife

Cowslips are important for wildlife, their flowers an early source of nectar for various insects including bees, beetles and butterflies such as the brimstone. Cowslip is also a food plant for the Duke of Burgundy butterfly.

Did you know?

‘Cowslip’ is actually a distorted pronunciation of ‘cow slop’, so named because the flowers are associated with cow pat in meadows and fields.

Uses of cowslip

The plant was traditionally used to treat sleeping problems as it is said to have a sedative quality, as well as the flowers being used to help treat coughs.

Cowslip leaves are used in Spanish cooking and have a slightly citrusy flavour. The flowers are traditionally used to flavour English country wine.

Mythology and symbolism

Cowslips were traditionally picked on May Day to adorn garlands but also for other celebrations, such as weddings. Cowslips have also been called ‘St. Peter’s keys’ or ‘keys of heaven’ because the one-sided flower heads looked like a set of keys, and it was said that cowslips grew where St. Peter dropped the Key of Earth.

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