Cowslip (Primula veris)

GenusPrimula (1)
SizeFlower diameter: 9-12 mm (2)
Flower stalk: 10-30 cm (2)
Leaf length: 5-15 cm (2)

Widespread (3).

The cowslip is a well-known spring flowering plant, which was once much more common than it is today (4). The crinkled green leaves are covered on both sides with a fine layer of downy hairs; they form rosettes, which tend to lie close to the ground (2). A downy flower stalk rises from the centre of this rosette, and is topped with a cluster of 1-30 yellow or buff-coloured flowers (2). The flowers are funnel-shaped and have characteristic orange spots at the base of the lobes (2). The bunched arrangement of the nodding flowers earned the species the local names of 'bunch of keys' and 'culverkeys' (4).

Although it suffered a dramatic decline between 1930 and 1980 (3), the cowslip is fairly widespread throughout Britain, but is absent from most of Scotland. This species is found in Europe to the north of the Alps, and other subspecies are found in the rest of Europe and western Asia (2).

Found in well-drained, herb-rich grasslands, and may occasionally occur in scrub or woodland edges or rides, on seasonally flooded areas, and on calcareous cliffs (3).

This perennial species flowers from April to June (5). The flowers have been put to various uses throughout the years; they were thought to be 'good for the nerves and brain'. They were also used to make cowslip wine (which is still produced in the Midlands), a conserve, and an ointment for the skin (6). In Lambley, a village in Nottinghamshire, the first Sunday in May is deemed 'Cowslip Sunday'; in the past, cowslips were sold to visitors from Nottingham, although a lack of truly wild specimens today means that it is garden grown plants that are brought into the church to decorate the altar (4).

The decline of this species was caused by widespread agricultural improvement, with the use of herbicides or ploughing of grasslands (3). Herbicides were also used on waysides until the 1980s (4).

In many areas, cowslips have been planted on road verges, and wildflower seed mixtures frequently contain the seeds of cowslip, so the species has increased in recent years (3). Cowslips have also returned to areas where grazing has been greatly reduced, and a number of churchyards are being managed for wildlife, allowing a resurgence of this well-loved and cheering spring flower (4).

The cowslip is included in Plantlife's Common Plants Survey; this survey aims to determine the status of 65 common plant species in Britain, in order to understand how these species are faring in the countryside and to effectively monitor changes in their populations (7).

For more information on British plants and their conservation, see Plantlife- the wild plant conservation charity:
Visit the website of the Botanical Society of the British Isles at:

You can see the cowslip by visiting Uffington, Oxfordshire:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (Feb 2003):
  2. Clapham, A.R., Tutin, T.G. & Moore, D.M. (1987) Flora of the British Isles. 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. & Dines, T.D. (2002) The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
  5. Press, B. & Gibbons, B (1993) Photographic field guide to wild flowers of Britain and Europe. New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, London.
  6. A Modern Herbal (Feb 2003):
  7. Plantlife Common Plants Survey (Feb 2003):