Now the bright morning star, dayes harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flowry May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow Cowslip, and the pale Primrose
From: Song on May Morning, by John Milton (1608-1674)
May always brings me one of my favourite spring highlights. There’s a huge bank of cheery primroses to view on the way to my allotment, plus the pictured mass of cowslips to greet me at the lower entrance to our estate. There was just the odd cowslip when we moved here 15 years ago, and they’ve increased every year to make this year’s golden sight.
According to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, it’s thought the name cowslip is derived from the old English for cow-slop aka cow pat. We no longer have cows nearby, but our plants are found by a stream, which is closer to another proposed derivation, which refers to its preference for boggy ground.
Cowslips were once as common as today’s more familiar buttercup, but they suffered a major decline due to the changes in agricultural practices in the 1950s through to the 1980s. However, in modern times they’ve proved to work well in the wildflower seed mixes used to landscape and clothe major earthworks such as motorway verges. Thus cowslips are becoming common again, especially along the chalky and lighter soils of England and Wales – their former stronghold.
I can vouch for that – there were masses of them along the A417 as I drove through the Cotswolds to Malvern Spring Show last week. It also points to the probability that the road’s wayside management no longer includes herbicides as these were implicated in their original demise.
Cowslips are edible, and when abundant they were used in English cookery to bulk out spring salads and to make cowslip wine or vinegar. During those times, ‘Cowslip Sunday’ became a popular tradition in the village of Lambley, Nottinghamshire on the first Sunday in May. Parties of daytrippers used come out from Nottingham to buy bunches of the flowers picked by local children. Today, the cowslips used in the celebrations at the local church are garden-grown flowers.
I’ve tried to grow cowslips in my own garden, but I’ve realised my chosen spot was too shady and dry. I should also have made sure they had the space to self-seed in July. I don’t have the perfect spot for them in my garden, but I think there’s a patch of grass by the stream which goes past our house where the local council’s mower doesn’t reach. It would be good to establish a small colony there ready to multiply and greet walkers on the way home from school or town.
Michelle Chapman is a gardener, freelance writer and blogger from Wiltshire. She is the author of the award winning blog, Veg Plotting, where she writes about her small town garden, seasonal food and anything else which strikes her whilst up at her allotment. Her blog can be found at www.vegplotting.blogspot.com.