Well first off, they’re beautiful spring flowers that can brighten up even a dull, wet day in the garden. I planted cowslips in the garden at the first house we bought. They grew and seeded themselves around, so I was able to give plants to friends for their gardens. When we moved, I dug up some plants for our new garden. Now every spring those plants, and many others that have grown from their seeds, produce a mass of flowers. Somewhere along the line a few darker, orange flowered plants have arrived to join the yellow of the originals. I love that the flowers are small and delicate, not like the big, blousy blooms of the cultivated primulas that are sold as winter and spring bedding plants. And it’s the fact that they haven’t been bred to death, to produce bigger flowers in a whole range of colours that makes them more valuable for wildlife.
Which brings us on to reason number two – cowslips are native wildflowers that have evolved alongside native British insects over thousands of years. The insects rely on the flowers for food and visit the cowslips to collect nectar, as they move from one flower to another they take pollen with them. And it’s this transfer of pollen that the cowslips need in order to produce seed. Cowslip numbers are declining in the wild. They saw a massive drop when agricultural practices became more intensive, herbicide use increased and meadows were ploughed up in favour of arable crops. A spring meadow dotted with cowslip flowers is a rare sight nowadays. But these pretty spring flowers are a good nectar source for bees, butterflies and moths making them great plants to include in a wildlife friendly garden.
And thirdly there is the history and folklore surrounding these plants, don’t you just love it when a plant has a story to tell? Folklore tells that cowslips first grew from the ground where St Peter dropped his keys, a story reflected in the fact that they are also known as Herb Peter and Key of Heaven. The cowslip has long been used in herbal medicine. The flowers, having a sedative effect, are used to make infusions for treating anxiety, insomnia and headaches. And if you want to get the children interested, you can them that the name cowslip is derived from the plant’s habit of growing in pastures among the cowpats or cowslops.
So, if you’ve got some space in your garden, why not plant a few cowslips? They are fairly tolerant of garden conditions, preferring a sunny position and neutral to slightly alkaline soils (if you have rhododendrons and camellias growing happily in your garden, cowslips will probably struggle to establish in the ground). If you garden on acid soil, or don’t have a garden, you can always plant cowslips in containers. They look fantastic in terracotta pots or window boxes. Enjoy the flower through April and May, but don’t be tempted to cut the spent flower heads off the plant if you want seeds for more plants. .. And one other thing, now that I’ve got you all enthusiastic about growing cowslips, please don’t go digging up plants from the wild (I know you wouldn’t even think of doing this) – there are few enough already. Best bet is to buy from a local nursery, especially if you can find plants grown from locally produced seed.
Oh, and if you still aren’t convinced, the cowslip flowers are edible. Sprinkle them over spring salads or, if you have a meadow full of flowers, why not try making some cowslip wine?