CowslipCowslip flowers are about an inch across. Each flower has five petals, two small sepals at the back, and three large outer petals, the upper one of which is lowermost. The flowers have a scent that people describe as sickly or unpleasant to some (and not all "cowslips" smell like this), but to others, this scent is not detectable, or only vaguely sweet. It has also been described as spicy, honey-like, and somewhat similar to Jasmine. The flowers are pollinated by bees, bumblebees, and flies.
Cowslips were formerly used in medicine for ailments including coughs, diarrhea, jaundice, and amenorrhea. They were also said to cure snakebite and relieve colic, epilepsy, and vertigo. Cowslips were eaten as a salad plant by country dwellers in the 15th century (see image). The leaves contain poisonous alkaloids that can cause vomiting if too many are ingested.
In Europe, cowslips are protected against picking by the 1979 Council Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds (79/409/EEC), which is incorporated into law in Great Britain under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is illegal to uproot any cowslip or its roots or to cut or break off any part above ground.
Cowslips are native only to Eurasia, from the Pyrenees in Spain up to Sweden and Russia. In Britain, they may be found from Northumberland southwards. They no longer grow wild in most parts of Europe, where they have been replaced by other more invasive species of "Primula", many of which are hybrids between "P. veris" and "P. elatior".
In the past, cowslips were used as food by many different civilizations throughout history, including those in ancient China, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. In Northern Europe, both the flowers and leaves have been eaten as a vegetable dish with a taste described as being between a radish and a cucumber, or simply as "sweet."
In addition to the flower nectar, the plant is also eaten by the larvae of some Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species including Grey Pug. The toxic alkaloids in cowslips can cause paralysis in grazing cattle and sheep: this is called 'chewing disease' or "pintail".
Cowslip leaves and flowers were used to make a non-alcoholic drink called cowslip wine. The plant is also grown as an ornamental plant in gardens, with many cultivars available between the species and hybrids: these include:
The hybrid between Primula veris and P. elatior is called "P." ×"cultorum", and has been used in some areas as a pasture plant for cattle. It can, however, still cause 'chewing disease' if consumed in too large quantities.
A cultivar of cowslip with paler flowers than the usual yellow was originally found in France in 1818, and given the cultivar name "Primula officinalis" 'Alba'. This is now sometimes called a separate species, but modern authorities do not accept it as such: they still classify it as a cultivar of cowslip.