You may have noticed in previous posts in the Flora Series that it’s the folklore and medicinal uses of the plants found along my ‘local’ stretch of the Oxford Canal that interest me most, with that in mind I’m going to try expanding that aspect of the posts and cutting back on the botantical detail. Feel free to let me know what you think…
Botanical: Primula veris (LINN.) The species name veris meaning “of spring”.
One of the best known spring flowers, cowslips are a nostalgic symbol of the once flower-rich pastures of rural England. The Cowslip is a native plant found in old meadows, pastures, grassland, hedge banks, open scrub and woodland clearings. In recent years it has often colonised churchyards and road verges. It is a perennial and flowers during April and May. Cowslips have rosettes of green, crinkly, tongue-like leaves low to the ground. Tube-like, egg-yolk yellow flowers are clustered together at the ends of tall, green stems, each flower is 9–15 mm broad.
The origin of name ‘Cowslip’ is obscure. It has been suggested that it’s a corruption of ‘Cow’s Leek,’ leek being derived from the Anglo-Saxon word leac, meaning a plant. It’s also variously suggested that Cowslip derives from the old English for cow dung, because the plant was often found growing in cow pastures, or an alternative derivation that the name simply refers to slippery or boggy ground; again, a typical habitat for this plant.
Other folk names include: cuy lippe, herb peter, paigle, peggle, key flower, key of heaven, fairy cups, petty mulleins, crewel, buckles, palsywort and the rather fine plumrocks and tittypines.
In old Herbals Cowslip is most aften referred to as Herb Peter or the Keyflower. It’s claimed that the pendent flowers suggest a symbolic bunch of keys, the emblem of St. Peter. Though the idea of keys may well have descended from Norse mythology where the flower was dedicated to Frcya, the Key Virgin, and was thought to admit to her treasure palace.
The flowers have a distinctive and fresh fragrance and somewhat narcotic juices, which have given rise to their use in making the fermented liquor called Cowslip Wine, formerly much produced in the Midlands.
Recipe, though perhaps I wouldn’t try this at home!
It is made from the ‘peeps,’ the yellow petal rings:
A gallon of ‘peeps’ with 4 lb. of lump sugar and the rind of 3 lemons is added to a gallon of cold spring water. A cup of fresh yeast is then included and the liquor stirred every day for a week. It is then put into a barrel with the juice of the lemons and left to ‘work.’ When ‘quiet,’ it is corked down for eight or nine months and finally bottled. The wine should be perfectly clear and of a pale yellow colour and has almost the value of a liqueur. In certain children’s ailments, Cowslip Wine, given in small doses as a medicine, is particularly beneficial.
Young Cowslip leaves were at one time eaten in country salads and mixed with other herbs to stuff meat, whilst the flowers were made into a delicate conserve. Cowslip salad from the petals, with white sugar, is said to make an excellent and refreshing dish.
Children delight in making Cowslip Balls, or ‘tosties,’ from the flowers. The umbels are picked off close to the top of the main flowerstalk and about fifty to sixty are hung across a string which may be stretched for convenience between the backs of two chairs. The flowers are then pressed carefully together and the string tied tightly so as to collect them into a ball. Care must be taken to choose only such heads or umbels in which all the flowers are open, as otherwise the surface of the ball will be uneven.
Herbalists provide a long list of ailments that may be remedied by application of the roots or leaves of the Cowslip; ‘the juice of the flowers takes off spots and wrinkles from the face and other vices of the skin’ whilst ‘ the water of the flowers being ‘very proper medicine for weakly people.’
William Turner (1508-68) English physician and herbalist stated that:
‘Some weomen we find, sprinkle ye floures of cowslip wt whyte wine and after still it and wash their faces wt that water to drive wrinkles away and to make them fayre in the eyes of the worlde rather than in the eyes of God, Whom they are not afrayd to offend.’
Nicholas Culpepper (1616-54) botanist, herbalist, physician and astrologer went on to say:
‘Our city dames know well enough the ointment or distilled water of it adds to beauty or at least restores it when lost. The flowers are held to be more effectual than the leaves and the roots of little use. An ointment being made with them taketh away spots and wrinkles of the skin, sunburnings and freckles and promotes beauty; they remedy all infirmities of the head coming of heat and wind, as vertigo, false apparitions, phrensies, falling sickess, palsies, convulsions, cramps, pains in the nerves, and the roots ease pains in the back and bladder. The leaves are good in wounds and the flowers take away trembling. Because they strengthen the brains and nerves and remedy palsies, the Greeks gave them the name Paralysio. The flowers preserved or conserved and a quantity the size of a nutmeg taken every morning is a sufficient dose for inward diseases, but for wounds, spots, wrinkles and sunburnings an ointment is made of the leaves and hog’s lard.’
And George Hartman in Family Physitian of 1696 added:
‘Another way to make Cowslip Wine
‘Having boil’d your Water and Sugar together, pour it boiling hot upon your Cowslips beaten, stir them well together, and let them stand in a Vessel close cover’d till it be almost cold; then put into it the Yest beaten with the Juice of Lemons; let it stand for two days, then press it out with as much speed as you can, and put it up into a Cask, and leave a little hole open, for the working; when it hath quite done working stop it up close for a Month or Six Weeks, then Bottle it. Cowslip Wine is very Cordial, and a glass of it being drank at night Bedward, causes sleep and rest. . . .’