Our English pastures and meadows, especially where the soil is of
blue lias clay, become brilliantly gay, with gaudy cowslips drest,
quite early in the spring. But it is a mistake to suppose that these
flowers are a favourite food with cows, who, in fact, never eat
them if they can help it. The name Cowslip is really derived, says
Dr. Prior, from the Flemish words, kous loppe, meaning hose
flap, a humble part of woolle
nether garments. But Skeat thinks
it arose from the fact that the plant was supposed to spring up
where a patch of cow dung had fallen.
Originally, the Mullein--which has large, oval, woolly leaves--
and the Cowslip were included under one common Latin name,
Verbascum; for which reason the attributes of the Mullein still
remain accredited by mistake to the second plant. Former medical
writers called the Cowslip herba paralysis, or, palsywort,
because of its supposed efficacy in relieving paralysis. The whole
plant is known to be gently narcotic and somniferous. Pope
praised the herb and its flowers on account of their sedative
For want of rest,
Lettuce and Cowslip wine--Probatum est.
Whilst Coleridge makes his Christabel declare with reference to
the fragrant brew concocted from its petals, with lemons and
It is a wine of virtuous powers,
My mother made it of wild flowers.
Physicians for the last two centuries have used the powdered roots
of the Cowslip (and the Primrose) for wakefulness, hysterical
attacks, and muscular rheumatism; and the cowslip root was
named of old both  radix paralyseos, and radix arthritica.
This root, and the flowers, have an odour of anise, which
is due to their containing some volatile oil identical with
mannite. Their more acrid principle is saponin. Hill tells us that
when boiled in ale, the roots are taken by country persons for
giddiness, with no little success. They be likewise in great request
among those that use to hunt after goats and roebucks on high
mountains, for the strengthening of the head when they pass by
fearful precipices and steep places, in following their game, so that
giddiness and swimming of the brain may not seize upon them.
The dose of the dried and powdered flowers is from fifteen to
twenty grains. A syrup of a fine yellow colour may also be made
from the petals, which answers the same purposes. Three pounds
of the fresh blossoms should be infused in five pints of boiling
water, and then simmered down to a proper consistence with
Herbals of the Elizabethan date, say that an ointment made from
cowslip flowers taketh away the spots and wrinkles of the skin,
and doth add beauty exceedingly, as divers ladies, gentlewomen,
and she citizens--whether wives or widows--know well enough.
The tiny people were then supposed to be fond of nestling in the
drooping bells of Cowslips, and hence the flowers were called
fairy cups; and, in accordance with the doctrine of signatures, they
were thought effective for removing freckles from the face.
In their gold coats spots you see,
These be rubies: fairy favours.
In these freckles live their savours.
The cluster of blossoms on a single stalk sometimes bears the
name of lady's keys or St. Peter's wort, either because it
resembles a bunch of keys as St.  Peter's badge, or because as
primula veris it unlocks the treasures of spring.
Cowslip flowers are frequently done up by playful children into
balls, which they call tisty tosty, or simply a tosty. For this
purpose the umbels of blossoms fully blown are strung closely
together, and tied into a firm ball.
The leaves were at one time eaten in salad, and mixed with other
herbs to stuff meat, whilst the flowers were made into a delicate
Yorkshire people call this plant the Cowstripling; and in
Devonshire, where it is scarcely to be found, because of the red
marl, it has come about that the foxglove goes by the name of
Cowslip. Again, in some provincial districts, the Cowslip is known
as Petty Mullein, and in others as Paigle (Palsywort). The old
English proverb, As blake as a paigle, means, As yellow as a
One word may be said here in medicinal favour of the poor cow, whose
association with the flower now under discussion has been so
unceremoniously disproved. The breath and smell of this sweet-odoured
animal are thought in Flintshire to be good against consumption.
Henderson tells of a blacksmith's apprentice who was restored
to health when far advanced in a decline, by taking the milk
of cows fed in a kirkyard. In the south of Hampshire, a useful
plaster of fresh cow-dung is applied to open wounds. And
even in its evolutionary development, the homely animal reads us
a lesson; for Dat Deus immiti cornua curta bovi, says the Latin
proverb--Savage cattle have only short horns. So was it in the
House that Jack built, where the fretful creature that tossed the
dog had but one horn, and this grew crumpled.