Cowslip is a staple of British folklore, herbalism and literature …
And I serve the Fairy Queen
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours.
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer’s Night Dream
My mother was a real countrywoman … She spent much of her childhood at Yetminster, near Sherborne, in Dorset, where there were wonderful old meadows full of cowslips and granfer-griggles (early purple orchids). We often went there when I was a child because we could reach it by train. One tradition I enjoyed, when cowslips were in bloom, was making tisty tosties. We made balls of cowslip flowers by cutting off their heads and tying them together with wool, so that the end of their stems were in the centre. We then hung a dozen or so tisty tosties on a stick and carried them home. I recall chanting ‘Tisty tosty, tell me true, who shall I be married to?’
Orpington, Kent, February 2009, Plant Lore Archive
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It’s May Day, Beltane if you will, and I have Cowslip on my mind. I remember a piece of folklore, that if a suitor gives his love a sprig on May Day, they will be married before year’s end. In a ceremony with Cowslip strewn on the the church path of course.
Gertrude Jekyll, writing in the early 20th century recounts that children made balls of Cowslips, called a tissty-tosstie to “Bring in the May.”
One of the first flowers of spring, blooming from April into May, the sunshine yellow flowers of the cowslip are dotted with orange and are quite sweet smelling. Native to Europe as well as Asia, Cowslips can be found in meadows, clear, grassy areas and river banks as they love the sun. But they grow as well in shady areas like woods and forests.
A perennial, Cowslip flowers form a clustered bloom above a rosette of leaves on a single stalk. In Wales, long stalks are thought to portend a wet summer, whereas a shorter stem means a dry summer.
A close cousin to the primrose, it’s sometime difficult to differentiate between the two in early literature and herbals, as the names were often used interchangeably. Sometimes the two form a hybrid, the curiously named oxlip.
Cowslip springs from Old English – cu-sloppe, referring to a pile of cow dung, from which the plant often grows.
To the Christian, the Cowslip grew from the ground when St. Peter once dropped the keys to the pearly gates of heaven. This accounts for some of Cowslip’s alternative names, such as St. Peter’s Keys, Key Flower, Bunch of Keys and Keys of Heaven, which are often found in early herbals.
Cowslips are called Tisty-Tosty in the British county of Devon, and Paigles in other areas of Britain. In Lincolnshire they’re known as Milk Maidens, while in other counties they go by the name of Palsywort.
In Dorset they go by a more traditional name – Fairycup, which reflects the earlier belief that fairies use the umbrella shaped flowers for shelter during the rain.
“That they do dwell within the cowslip hollow is truth for I have seen them fly out in intoxicated abandon.”
The key motif pops up again in fairy lore, where it’s thought that they can be used to spring the locks that protect their treasure.
Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry;
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
From The Tempest by William Shakespeare
One of the more famous characters associated with Cowslips is Ariel, from Shakespeare’s seventeenth century play The Tempest.
Cowslips go hand in hand with May Day or Beltane festivities, often used as garlands for maypoles. Chaucer names Cowslips as one of the flowers sought after for May Day in his poem The Court of Love, naming it there as a Primrose.
They were still being used in the nineteenth century as a key ingredient in nineteenth century May Day celebrations, as Thomas Hardy wrote in Return of the Native of having the good luck “to live in a cowslip country.”
They were also used in Britain for the making of wine.
The roots, leaves and flowers of Cowslip had many uses in folk remedies, as herbals both ancient and current point out.
From The Cloisters Museum and Gardens’ website, we learn that “in the fifteenth-century herbal Hortus Sanitatis, cowslips were warming and drying in action, and were good for headache and catarrh. Oil of primrose rejuvenated the elderly and alleviated sufferings associated with the pains and cold of winter. When given in wine or dropped in the ears, this oil was good for palsy, and restored the faculties of those paralyzed by apoplexy. The nodding flower heads of the cowslip were a sign of its usefulness against trembling of the limbs, as the freckled throats of the flowers were an indication of its efficacy in removing spots and pimples from the skin.”
The renowned British botanist Nicholas Culpepper wrote in the seventeenth century that an ointment created from Cowslip would increase a woman’s beauty. It was also used as a skin cleanser, to cure blemishes and open the skin’s pores.
The sedative properties of Cowslip are well known, and tea made from the flowers help to cure nervous tension and anxiety. As the effects are relatively mild, it was thought to be safe for children, and help rambunctious kids sleep.
The roots loosen mucus and phlegm and were often used for cold symptoms, as well as the flu.
Cowslip was also used to reduce inflammation from early times. John Gerard wrote in 1633 that
“Cowslips are commended against the paine of the joints called the Gout, and the slacknesse of the sinews, which is the palsie”, as well as for other ailments such as kidney and bladder stones!
“Primrose (hymelsloszel) is hot. All its vital energy is from the sharpness of the sun. Now, certain plants are strengthened by the sun, others by the moon, and certain others by the sun and moon together. But this plant takes its strength especially from the power of the sun, whence it checks melancholy. When melancholy rises in a person, it makes him sad and agitated in his moods. It makes him pour forth words against God. Airy spirits notice this, and rush to him, and by their persuasion turn him toward insanity. This person should place primrose on his flesh, near his heart, until it warms him up. The airy spirits dread the primrose’s sun-given power and will cease their torment.”
Hildegard of Bingen, Physica
Cowslip also finds its way into the kitchen. The Noble Boke Of Cookry names a soup recipe consisting of primerole and ground almonds. Also the flowerbuds were eaten in salads, and the young leaves boiled as a potherb.
With the prominent role of Cowslip over time, it’s no wonder that this lovely plant is now on the decline. Perhaps it’s the fading of ancient traditions which will allow this versatile plant in the witch’s garden to make a comeback.