In country meadows throughout much of the world, the sweet-smelling, yellow, bell-shaped blooms of cowslip are nearly synonymous with spring. The attractive perennial — which bears clusters of nodding flowers atop long, thin stems — is native to Europe and western Asia and has naturalized in temperate areas of the world, including the northeastern United States and Canada.
Cowslip is strongly associated with springtime. In Spain and Italy, this perennial herb is known as primavera, meaning “spring.” The name “cowslip” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon cu-sloppe, a reference to the plant’s tendency to bloom among herds of dairy cattle.
Common Name: Cowslip
Description: Basal rosette of dark green leaves; thin stems up to 10 inches tall bear clusters of nodding, bright yellow, bell-shaped blooms; fragrant
Hardiness: To Zone 5
Flowering: April to May
Parts Used: Flowers and roots
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized in other temperate regions; open fields and meadows
Cowslip flowers have a very distinctive fresh fragrance, and they make a nice addition to springtime salads. Also try candying them like you would violets to make a decorative garnish for desserts.
Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes reference to a traditional belief that cowslip flowers are good for the complexion. Modern herbalists use cowslip flowers prepared as a lotion to treat skin blemishes, and for sunburn. The flowers have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and diuretic properties. Taken as a tea, they are used to treat asthma and allergies. Cowslip tea is also a traditional treatment for anxiety and insomnia.
The roots, which contain triterpenoid saponins, have powerful expectorant properties. Decoctions of cowslip root have been used to loosen phlegm in people with chest colds.
Caution: Do not use cowslip if you are pregnant or taking aspirin or prescription anticoagulant drugs, such as warfarin.
Long-blooming, deer-resistant cowslip is a good choice for mixed borders, woodland plantings, and cottage gardens. Its long-stemmed blooms make attractive springtime bouquets. Related Primula species have yielded many garden cultivars, including the pastel-colored mix drumstick primrose (P. denticulata), pink ‘Quaker’s Bonnet’ (P. vulgaris), and purple ‘Wanda’ (P. juliae).
How to grow it
Cowslip grows wild in fields and pastures with chalky soil. It prefers dry, neutral to alkaline soil in full sun or partial shade. Plant seeds in summer; root divisions can be planted in late spring or early fall. Harvest the flowers and roots in spring.