Synonyms and Common names: Mayflower, paigle, peagle, peggle, Cowslip, keyflower, key of heaven, palsywort, fairy cups, petty mulleins, crewel, buckles, plumrocks, Our Lady’s keys, Arthritica, Herb Peter.
Description and Habitat: Cowslip is a well-known wildflower, native to meadows and pastures throughout England, Europe and temperate Asia.
It is a hairy perennial, having loose rosettes of oblanceolate to obovate, wrinkled leaves, 50-250mm long. The lobes of the calyx are acute at the apex. The bright yellow flowers are funnel-shaped, 8-28mm across, with orange spots at the base of each lobe, all drooping to one side in a cluster of ten to thirty on a long stalk. The ripe capsule is shorter than the calyx, and contains dry seeds. The plant favours open woodland, scrub and grassland on lime-rich soils.
The herb is now rare in the wild but used to be common in meadows. The plant conservation charity Plantlife, after Britain's first Cowslip census, found that less than half of all Cowslips are found in their traditional meadow habitats and are found instead by roadside verges.
Parts used: The flowers and occasionally the root.
Harvesting: The flowers should be collected, without the green calyx, between March and May. The roots should be unearthed before flowering or in the autumn. Cowslip is becoming increasingly rare, so should not be collected from the wild.
Constituents: Up to 10% saponin glycosides (particularly in the root, and including Cowslipveroside and primoveroside which contain salicylates), flavonoids (mainly in the flowers, including quercetin, luteolin, kaempferol and apigenin and their glycosides), phenolic glycosides, tannins, and about 0.1% volatile oil.
Actions: Sedative, spasmolytic, expectorant, hypnotic, mild diuretic, mild aperient.
Indications: Acne (leaf juice), Antispasmodic, Anxiety, Bone and Joint Conditions, Breathing Disorders, Bronchitis, Catarrh (respiratory mucous), Coughs, Dizziness, Diuretic, (mild), Expectorant, Headache, Insomnia, Laryngitis, Nerve Pain, Nervous, Excitability, Restlessness, Sedative, Skin Conditions and Vascular Disorders.
Therapeutics and Pharmacology: Cowslip is a relaxing, sedative remedy, indicated for tension and stress. The flowers, which contain most of the essential oil known as ‘Cowslip camphor’, are indicated in insomnia and nervous tension. The main active constituents are the flavonoids which exhibit anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic activity. They inhibit the release of histamine and act as free radical scavengers. The flowers also have a reputation for treating measles, and an ointment made from them brings relief to sunburn.
The high saponin content in the root probably accounts for its reputation in the treatment of pertussis and bronchitis, while the salicylates explain its use for arthritic conditions; the root was known as Radix arthritica in the past. The root is also thought to be mildly diuretic and to slow down blood clotting.
Contraindications: Skin reactions may occur for those allergic to Cowslip. The roots are not to be taken with aspirin, as they are high in salicylates. Excessive doses may interfere with existing hypo- or hypertensive therapy or cause gastrointestinal irritation. In view of the lack of safety data, the use of cowslip during pregnancy and lactation should be avoided.
Over-dosage of Cowslip may cause stomach upset, nausea and diarrhoea.
Preparation and Dosage: As an expectorant and supportive treatment in promoting the secretion of phlegm (secretolytic) and alleviation of irritation in catarrh (mucous) of the upper respiratory tract.
The recommended dosage for cowslip flower Infusion is 1.5-3 teaspoons (2-4 g) of cut and dried flowers daily. Drink hot Infusion several times a day, especially in the morning and before bed. You could sweeten this with honey.
Primrose flower tincture is recommended with the daily dosage of 1.5 to 3 grams. Primrose root is recommended with the daily dosage of 0.5 to 1.5 grams.
As an expectorant, a cupful of the root Decoction, sweetened with honey, is drunk every two to three hours.
Additional Comments & Folklore: Cowslip is primarily used for respiratory conditions such as bronchitis and coughs, as it has decongestant and phlegm thinning and loosening properties.
It was popular in folk medicine and was believed to treat headache and nerve pain, as well as shaking and dizziness related to vascular weakness, although the validity of these claims has not been proven.
The tea was traditionally recommended as a vascular tonic for sensations of dizziness and vascular insufficiency.
Primrose root was taken for whooping cough, acute breathing disorders, bone and joint pain and stiffness, and nerve pain.
In homoeopathic medicine, Cowslip is prescribed for skin conditions. Cowslip leaf juice was also traditionally used for treating acne. The flowers can be made into a strong wine.
The flowers and root are particularly recommended for dispelling catarrh of the respiratory tract – thick mucous that is difficult to move without a tea or other medicine. New studies using bioassays show that Cowslip veris has potential anxiolytic activity, and based on a study using chicks, Cowslip botanical extract may be useful in modulating anxiety states without causing sedation.
According to legend, St Peter dropped the keys to Heaven and where they landed Cowslips grew (the flowers were thought to resemble a set of keys).
Cowslip wine, made from the "peeps" (yellow petal rings) and was thought to be a good sedative.
Its natural habitat is in meadows and woodland, with a particular preference for chalky soil.
Cowslips have also been used for hundreds of years to treat spasms, cramps, rheumatic pain and paralysis - used to be called Palsywort for this reason. Leaves can also be used for healing wounds.
Both the flowers and leaves often used to be eaten - young Cowslip leaves were eaten in salads or mixed with other herbs to stuff meat. Flowers can be eaten to strengthen the brain. In the 18th century, powdered roots boiled in ale were used for treating giddiness and nervous ailments. Cowslips used to be popular in Elizabethan knot gardens.
Cowslips are believed to be the favourite flower of nightingales, who were said to only frequent places where Cowslips grew. Frightened fairies hide in the flowers so as not to be seen.
Sprinkle your threshold with Cowslip flowers when you want to be left alone. Carry Cowslip flowers for good luck. If a woman washes her face in milk, which has been infused with Cowslips, then her beloved will be drawn closer to her.
The plant has the ability to split rocks containing treasure and can help you find hidden fairy gold.
The smell of Cowslips was believed to calm nerves and alleviate amnesia. Cowslips planted upside down on Good Friday turn into Primroses! And if fed on bull's blood they are said to turn red.
In Norse mythology, the plant was dedicated to Odin's wife, Frega, the goddess who held the keys to happiness and sexual love.