There are surely few sights more likely to swell the heart than fields coloured in spring and summer with swathes of wild flowers in full bloom. Whether it’s Wordsworth extolling the virtues of a host of golden daffodils or McCrae’s poppies staining Flander’s fields brilliant red, the imagery of wild flowers has the power to inspire and invoke strong emotion. It is a visual delight: a sensory connection with the natural world that we can all relate to.
Cowslips were once so common and widespread they would have been familiar to everyone living in Norfolk’s countryside. Across meadowland and pastures tens of thousands of their lemon-yellow flower heads heralded the arrival of warmer summer weather and were as much a symbol of spring as lambs, hawthorn blossom in the hedgerows, the call of the cuckoo and the arrival of swallows. Sadly this is no longer the case, the sight of fields filled with cowslips has largely vanished from both the countryside and our memories.
Of course we are still fortunate here in Norfolk to have a mosaic of different habitats, lots of open space, nature reserves and undisturbed common land where wild flowers can flourish. Many of these floral delights will be familiar to you; dandelions and daisies decorating your lawn, thistles and red campion adding colour to roadside verges, yellow flag iris glowing amongst Broadland fens. However our once familiar cowslip is now much less well-known.
The cowslip is believed to be so named from the old English word for cow dung, a reference to it appearing where a cow had recently deposited its ‘slop’! It is a member of the primula family, producing its clusters of small, bright yellow, bell-shaped flowers atop an upright stem during April and May. Look closely and you will see a bright orange spot at the base of each of its five petals, a feature absent from the closely related primrose and oxlip. An inhabitant of pasture, open woodland, roadside verges and lightly grazed grassland, it is at home in a variety of soil types, although particularly fond of more chalky soils. The plant is no longer anywhere near as common as it once was, but is still widespread, but thinly scattered, across the county.
Sadly, as with so many of our native wild flowers, the loss of traditionally grazed meadows together with general degradation and loss of habitat has caused serious declines.
However, it is a plant that readily colonises the banks of newly built roads (there is an impressive show along the Norwich Southern Bypass every spring for instance, albeit an artificial introduction), and it will happily recolonise unsprayed verges. The plant is also easily obtained from garden centres enabling you to admire them in your very own flower bed or lawn. I have several in my own garden planted in slightly wet ground around my pond. They look smashing in the May sunshine, gently nodding their elegant, tubular flowers in a gentle breeze. But beware! They hybridize readily with other, more showy, primulas and I’ve noticed several cowroses or perhaps primslips popping up here and there. These hybrid plants are sometimes called false oxlips because they can resemble that larger, paler and more robust plant, the genuine article of which is quite rare in Norfolk nowadays, and only likely to be encountered on the Claylands of South Norfolk.
Being an early spring flower, cowslips have deep roots in folklore. It was once scattered on church paths at weddings and was commonly used as garlands for Mayday celebrations. It has a variety of local names such as fairy cups, lady’s fingers and key of heaven; the latter name relating to the flowers resemblance to the keys on the badge of St Peter. Legend has it that St Peter dropped his keys to Heaven and a cowslip sprung from the spot on which the keys fell. Many streets and buildings are named after the cowslip which I think still conjures up a sense of romance with us all. The plant also has a variety of culinary and medicinal uses; wine can be made from its petals and an infusion made from the flowers is considered to be a remedy for headaches and insomnia. A good all-rounder is the cowslip.
Nowadays in Norfolk you are only likely to see numbers of wild cowslips on roadside verges or sympathetically managed commons or nature reserves, including churchyards. Our grassland commons, lightly grazed, unploughed and unpolluted, continue to be havens for such plants. Here amongst the rough grass you can still find clusters of cowslips, their dainty flowers providing flashes of brightness across the sward. Well managed commons are so important for wildlife in general and for plants like the cowslip in particular. Without these sometimes ancient grassland systems we would lose so much. Treasure them, because as encapsulated by Wordsworth and other great poets, the sight and smell of beautiful wild flowers help to enrich our lives.