How the cowslip got its name is a matter of conjecture, as some believe that it is a corruption of cousleek from the Anglo-Saxon leac meaning plant (compare this with houseleek), and others believing that it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon for cow pat “couslyppe”) with the latter seeming most plausible as they tend to grow where cows have been. The cowslip is native to Europe and West Asia and grow in temperate zones in Pakistan quite profusely.
  They are sometimes called Fairy Cups as it was believed that frightened fairies would hide in them. This was mentioned in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” in Act 5 scene 1, in Ariel’s song, when he has his freedom from Prospero.
   “Where the bee sucks there suck I
    In the cowslip’s bell I lie
    There I crouch when owls do cry.
    On the bat’s back I do fly,
    After summer merrily
    After summer merrily”
In fact Shakespeare refers to cowslips in other plays too, notably in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when at the start of Act 2 a fairy tells Puck or Robin Goodfellow,
  “And I serve the Fairy Queen
    To dew her orb upon the green;
    The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
    In their gold coats spots you see;
    Those be rubies, fairy favours,
    In those freckles live their savours;
    I must go seek some dewdrops here,
    And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.”
In Warwickshire where Shakespeare came from (Stratford-upon-Avon is in that county)cowslips still grow, although there aren’t as many as there would have been in Shakespeare’s day, as so much of their habitat has been lost in development.
Cowslips were popular in 19th century English literature too, with the Tulliver children Maggie and Philip drinking cowslip wine, in George Eliot’s novel “The Mill on the Floss,” and Thomas Hardy describes a maypole entwined at its top with cowslips in his novel, “Return of the Native.” Matthew Arnold in his poem “Thyrsis” describes the Oxford hills
   “With thorns once studded, old white-blossomed trees,
     Where thick the cowslips grow.”
  In William Morris’ short story “Frank’s Sealed Letter” the hero, Hugh, remembers “it was the cowslip time of year.”
From the above quotations we see how prolific the flowers were at one time, and in “The Mill on the Floss” the children drink cowslip wine which is a sedative. At the time of writing that novel, children were given cowslip wine to calm them down and to send them to sleep. In the Midlands in England (the setting for this novel) cowslip wine was believed to be good for the kidneys.
   There are many superstitions about cowslips and these are reflected in some of the old names for them. For example they were called Herb Peter and Keys of Heaven, because it was said that St Peter, who has the keys to the gates of heaven and acts as the gatekeeper, once dropped the keys to heaven and cowslips grew where they fell. It was also though that nightingales are attracted to the fragrance of cowslips and would only frequent places where they grow. If you want (like Greta Garbo) to be alone, then you should scatter cowslip flowers on your threshold. They should be carried around for good luck and if a woman wants to marry, she should wash her face in milk in which cowslips have been infused, to attract the man she wants to marry. They will also help you find fairy gold and will split rocks containing treasures. If you plant cowslips on Good Friday they will turn into primroses, and the fragrance will cure amnesia.
   Primroses are closely related to cowslips and another relative that grows in the British Isles is the oxlip. Cowslip wine is reputedly slightly narcotic as it is made from the flowers which have narcotic juice in them. The flower petals can be crystallized like rose petals and violets and used in desserts, or made into preserves and jam. Tisane can also be made with the flower petals, and the roots can be made into a decoction. The recipes are below. For coughs use equal amounts of coltsfoot, cowslips and aniseed and pour a cup of boiling water over the herbs and leave to steep for 15 mins before straining and drinking.
   The leaves have been used for wounds, and they used to be eaten with the petals in salads and used to stuff meat. In the 18th century the flowers eaten to strengthen the brain and the powdered root was boiled in ale and given to people of a nervous disposition (to cure hysterics and “fits of the vapours”).
   In Norse mythology the cowslip was dedicated to the goddess Freya who was the Key Virgin, and the cowslip was thought to be the key to her treasure trove. When Christianity came to Europe and Scandinavia the cowslip became associated with the Virgin Mary, and became known as “Our Lady’s Keys.”
   In old herbals the plant was known as Radix arthritica and used as a remedy for muscular rheumatism. The ancient Greeks believed that it could cure paralysis and palsy and so it was known to them as Paralysio and in Britain was known as Palsywort. It is said to be second only to betony for curing headaches, and has antispasmodic and is believed to be good for nervousness, anxiety and restlessness. If you take a pound weight of flowers and pour 1½ pints of boiling water over them, then add a lump of jaggery and simmer this mixture until the sugar is dissolved, you will get a pale yellow syrup which can be diluted with water and taken for nervous excitability. It was believed that the flowers could strengthen the brain and nerves.
   Apparently cowslips infused in white wine are good for the complexion and can remove freckles, while the juice from the flowers will get rid of spots and pimples and wrinkles, halting the aging process of the skin. Ointments can be made from the flowers using a base of lard or ghee. They have been used in cosmetic preparations for centuries.
  Culpeper says: -
   “An ointment being made with them taketh away spots and wrinkles of the skin, sunburning and freckles and promotes beauty; they remedy all infirmities of the head coming of heat and wind, and vertigo false apparitions, phrensies, falling sickness, palsies, convulsions, cramps, pains in the nerve, and the roots ease pains in the back and bladder. The leaves are good in wounds and the flowers take away trembling…”
  Today the dried flowers and sometimes the roots are used as an expectorant for chronic coughs and bronchitis (see the remedy above).The root may be diuretic and anti-rheumatic and the leaves have similar properties, although those of the root are stronger. The flowers have anti-spasmodic properties and anti-inflammatory ones and they may be beneficial in asthma conditions and other allergic ailments. The flowers should be harvested in spring, while the roots are best collected in autumn. However in Britain and other countries cowslips are protected in the wild so should not be gathered.
  The flowers and leaves contain saponins and flavonoids so have antioxidant properties. These also give them antispasmodic action and anti-inflammatory actions, while it is the triterpenoid saponins which give the plant its expectorant properties.
 Not very much research has so far been done on cowslips to test their efficacy.

2 tsps cowslip petals
1 cup boiling water

Pour the boiling water over the petals and leave to steep for 10 – 15 mins.
Strain and drink a cup three times a day.

1 tsp chopped root
1 cup water

Put the root in the water and bring to the boil.
Simmer for 5 mins.
Leave to steep for 10 mins, then strain and drink.
These have Taste and are Treat(ment)s.

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