Cowslips are easy to see and almost impossible to confuse with anything else. Stems of scented yellow flowers rise from rosettes of simple, elongated leaves. Each petal has a deep orange spot at the base, which occasionally produces a variant form with yellow markings on orange petals. The flowers provide a valuable nectar and pollen source for bumble bees and moths, and produce hundreds of seeds when there are plenty of insects about. But they can also propagate themselves by forming new rosettes spreading out from the original plant.
Cowslips are native to most of Britain and Europe, and were once very common. Loss of traditional meadows and intensive agriculture reduced their numbers, but they are making a come-back thanks to regeneration of flower meadows, agricultural stewardship schemes and sowing of wild seed in places like motorway embankments. Here at St Nicks the best place to see them is alongside the meadow, where the orange variant can sometimes be found. They are also becoming established in other areas including near the Dragon Stones.
Flowering from late March through May, Cowslips used to be important in May Day celebrations, when country children would make cowslip balls and crowns, while their elders made cowslip wine. The flowers are regularly mentioned by poets (Shakespeare noticed and recorded those orange spots, and knew about meadow management too), and in the Victorian language of flowers it signified “pensive grace”. It had a more mundane side: the seventeenth century herbalist Thomas Culpeper lists a range of uses from easing back pain to removing freckles, and modern science confirms that the plant contains useful substances similar to aspirin.
Its Latin name loosely translates as “first-flowering of spring” – a bit of an exaggeration because its near-relative the primrose usually beats it by at least a month. Its English names, found in writing from as far back as 1000 AD, aren’t at all poetic. Slip comes from the same source as modern slop, and is often interpreted as “cow-pat”. It seems much more plausible that it’s “cow slobber” – the idea that the flowers pop up where the cows drool over their fresh spring pasture. An alternative country name, Paigle, possibly means a bulge or bag, probably referring to the green calyx behind the flower.
Shakespeare on pasture management:
www.monologuearchive.com/s/shakespeare_060.html (block cookies to view without ads!)
Charles Darwin on cowslip pollination: //darwin-online.org.uk/converted/published/1868_primula_F1744.html