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Cowslip (Primula veris)

A much loved spring plant the yellow flowers of cowslip can be seen covering meadows across the UK.

Common name: cowslip

Scientific name: Primula veris

Family: Primulaceae

What does cowslip look like?

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

Flowers: yellow in colour, the bell-shaped flowers have five petals with small indents in the top edge of the petals. The flowers are enclosed by a long green tube-shaped calyx. The flowers are found in clusters on each plant, which tilt to one side.

Fruit: a capsule with seeds inside.

Not to be confused with...

Oxlip (Primula elatior): this species can easily be confused with cowslips. Oxlips however have flowers which are a paler yellow in colour, they open out further and they tend to face the same direction. Furthermore the calyx of oxlips has darker green midribs. Leaves of this species are very similar in shape but are said to stop sharply by the base and not taper. Oxlips are also a much rarer plant, confined to certain areas of East Anglia.

False oxlip (Primula veris x vulgaris): a hybrid of cowslip and primrose this species grows taller than cowslips and has flower clusters which are not one-sided.

Where and when to find cowslip

Where: present across the UK, cowslips can be found in meadows, grassland and verges as well as gardens. This plant thrives on dry, calcareous soils.

When: a perennial which flowers from April to May.

Value to wildlife

An early flowering plant this species is important for wildlife, providing nectar for various insects, such as bees, beetles and butterflies, like the brimstone. Cowslip is also a food plant for the Duke of Burgundy butterfly.

Uses and folklore

Medicine: the plant has been used to treat sleeping problems because it is said to have a sedative quality, as well as the flowers being used to help treat coughs.

Folklore: cowslips were traditionally picked on May Day to adorn garlands but also other celebrations, such as weddings, as they are pretty flowers. 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 has been said that cowslips grew where Peter dropped the key of Earth.

Poetry: a brightly coloured yellow flower, cowslips are often admired and have been mentioned in various poems such as ‘Hither Hither Love’ by John Keats.