The Cowslip (Primula veris), which is a close relative of the Primrose, was once used abundantly for folk medicine preparations and as a result is still better known in parts of Britain by its traditional names of ‘paigles’ or Herb Peter.
The Cowslip is a lover of chalk and lime soils and it was once seen in abundance over large areas of alkaline rich grasslands. However, modern farming practices and pasture improvement methods have seen its demise in such areas and it is now just as likely to be found on wayside banks and verges, including motorway embankments. Despite the destruction of much of its favoured natural habitat, the Cowslip is still not uncommon and can be found throughout the British Isles and many parts of Europe. It becomes less abundant the further north you travel and is absent from some parts of Scotland completely although it then becomes present again in the far north in the Orkney Islands. It is not particularly tolerant of shading so thrives best in open areas.
The leaves of the Cowslip will start to emerge in early spring as small coils initially and then spread into a rosette which tends to lie flat to the ground. Where the undergrowth or grass which surrounds it is longer the rosette may become more upright. The leaves, which can grow up to 15 cm in length, have a rather crinkled appearance and are distinguished from those of the Primrose by their shorter length and hairiness – the Primrose has hairless leaves.
From the centre of each leaf rosette will extend one long stalk which may grow up to 30 cm. The bright yellow flowers all originate from the same point at the end of the stalk, each on its own small stalk so creating an umbel. Individual plants may hold up to 30 separate flowers which are bright yellow, 5 lobed and measure up to 15 mm. The flowers may be spotted with orange or even red. The sepals of each flower head form a delicate looking, pale green, elongated and crinkled sac.
The Cowslip has a fairly distinctive fragrance and it is partially due to this that the making of Cowslip wine was once a common practice. Modern day protection on wild flowers has seen the demise of this practice but in some areas the plant is now grown privately and specifically for a small scale commercial production of Cowslip wine in certain rural areas.
The Cowslip was used extensively in folk medicine for many centuries and, according to this botanical website, its properties include that of a diuretic, an expectorant and an antispasmodic and was also used to sooth and alleviate headaches, restlessness and insomnia amongst many other applications.