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 [124] 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. [126] 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.