I saw this cheerful little plant in flower this weekend and wanted to share a little about it with you. This is the cowslip (Primula veris), a pretty cousin of the sweet primrose bearing fragrant, bright yellow flowers with little orange spots that hang in clusters like a bunch of keys. Its flower, leaf and root can all be used medicinally.
History and folklore
In Norse mythology the cowslip was dedicated to the goddess Freya, the key virgin. The flowers were believed to open the lock to her treasure palace, hence the old name ‘key flower’. Freya was the ruler of fate, the stars and the heavens and she was a symbol of sexual love (her other name Frigg has descended into slang). The god Odin is said to have learned all his magic and divine powers from the goddess Freya.
With the coming of Christianity, cowslips were dedicated to the Virgin Mary and called ‘Our Lady’s keys.’ The keys would open the gates of heaven, so they were also named ‘Peterkeys’, ‘Peterwort’ and ‘Peterkin’ as well as ‘key of heaven’ and dedicated to St Peter to whom Jesus had promised the keys to the gates of heaven. They were also linked to St Agatha and St Bertulf as they were said to represent the keys held by Mary Mediatrix to the store houses of heavenly grace.
It was believed that cowslips were the favourite flower of the nightingale, which apparently only sang where cowslips flourished. Cowslip flowers used to be threaded on a string and bunched tightly into a ball made a ‘totsie’ which was tossed to and fro in a game. Apparently girls used these balls as a love oracle, throwing them from one to another saying: “Titsy, totsy, tell me true, who shall I be married to?” Cowslip flowers were a valued ingredient of love potions used by Saxon women. The petals were collected in the morning before the dew had dried on them and placed in a pot with fresh rainwater and left all day in the sunlight. The flower essence was then sprinkled on the pillow of their sweetheart whose heart was expected to melt within the following month! The plant was exchanged by courting couples and the flowers sold on the streets of London for good luck. While it was once a common feature of the countryside in spring, the charming cowslip has become rare because of over-picking and the use of herbicides – sadly it is now a protected plant. Happily I have masses of it growing in the garden, seeding itself all over the place!
Constituents and chemistry
Cowslip is rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory constituents. It contains flavonoids (including astragalin and catechin), flavonoid aglycons (apigenin, quercetine, kaemferol), flavonoid glycosides (cinarozid, rutin, hyperozid), phenolic glycosides (primverin and primulaverin), triterpene saponins and glycosides (including primulaveroside and primveroside containing salicylates) and volatile oils.
Both the root and flowers are excellent for stress-related problems – anxiety, tension, headaches, muscular aches and pains and nerve pain – and have a reputation for lifting the spirits and dispelling depression. They are cooling and anti-inflammatory and have been used traditionally for nervous problems associated with excess heat and congestion such as irritability and anger, as well as for inflammatory and painful nervous conditions including neuralgia, neuritis and vertigo. Cowslip also has a reputation for improving memory and increasing resilience to stress. The flowers are recommended for over-activity and sleeplessness particularly in children.
Cowslip is a popular remedy for the respiratory system. It has antimicrobial actions to help fight bacterial, fungal and viral infections including flu strains. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions help support the work of the immune system. The flavonoids, notably rutoside, have strong antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activities, the phenolic compounds and salicylates also play their part. Both the flowers and the root can be used to treat coughs, bronchitis, chest infections and catarrh. The root is particularly high in saponins which account for much of its expectorant action and its ability to liquify mucus to make it easier to clear. Cowslip’s combined soothing and sedative actions can soothe dry, irritating coughs and induce restful sleep, very useful when hacking coughs can disturb a good night’s sleep. The flowers have antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties which makes them useful in the treatment of asthma and other allergic conditions.
Taken in a hot infusion, cowslip flowers can be used to bring down fevers and to clear congestion and inflammation in colds, flu, sore throats, coughs and catarrh. They make a good remedy for babies, children and the elderly alike. By bringing blood to the surface of the body, cowslips relieve heat and help bring out eruptions, explaining why cowslips were an old country remedy for children’s measles.
Cowslip may also benefit the cardiovascular system. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions of the flavonoids, phenolic compounds and salicylates help protect the heart and arteries from oxidative stress caused by free radicals, reduce inflammation of the artery walls and the build-up of atheromatous plaque. The flavonoids including rutin have a strengthening effect on the arteries. Altogether cowslip has a cardio-protective effect, helping to prevent blood clots, regulate blood pressure and normalise the contractions of the heart, helping to avert cardiovascular problems including heart failure. Its diuretic effects may add to its hypotensive effect in high blood pressure. The salicylates particularly in the root have an anti-inflammatory action, useful for swollen joints in arthritis and gout.
Externally, cowslip flowers can be used in lotions and ointments for skin problems such as eczema, spots and acne, and with their cooling and soothing effects, to relieve sunburn and prickly heat. A maceration of cowslip flowers was once a popular poultice to apply to bruises, to draw out infection and speed healing of the skin.
According to the doctrine of signatures, the freckles on the petals denoted the flower’s value for removing blemishes and freckles on the skin. Shakespeare thought so when he said,
“In their gold coats spots you see,
These be rubies: Fairy favours,
In those freckles lie their savours.”
Perhaps this is why the cowslip flower is said to be a symbol of grace and beauty. Certainly, the beautiful cowslip has been the inspiration for many a poet as well as many a herbalist. They are certainly a welcome sight at the end of a grey winter… maybe it’s time to make a love potion!