Cowslips and Primroses are two of the cheeriest and prettiest of our spring wild flowers. They have a rustic charm reminiscent of days gone by when they were used much more commonly in medicine than they are today.
Cowslip, Primula officinalis, and Primrose, Primula vulgaris, contain similar properties, being of use for soothing the nerves, easing insomnia and improving headaches. An infusion of Cowslip with Wood Betony is said to be of particular use in headache and migraine. They are both anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic, making them useful for muscular pains, rheumatism and gout and an infusion of the flowers of either plant can be used in the bath for soothing these conditions. They have also been recommended for pulmonary problems as both have expectorant properties.
Infusions of Primrose or Cowslip flowers have been used to brighten the complexion and reduce wrinkles. Culpepper recommends a Cowslip ointment saying, ‘Our city dames know well enough the ointment or distilled water of it adds to beauty or at least restores it when lost.’
Both flowers are associated with youth in the Victorian language of flowers, Cowslip also being associated with winning grace and primrose carrying the meaning, ‘I can’t live without you.’ Both have also been associated with faeries in folk tradition and magic.
The flowers and young leaves can be used in salads, though they are potentially allergenic so always do an allergy test first by rubbing a little of the juice from a leaf on the inside of the lips and seeing how you react.
Both plants used to be very common but are much rarer now due to changing habitat and over harvesting as well as pesticide and agrochemical use. Therefore it’s best to grow these plants in your garden if you wish to use them for food or remedies. It is actually illegal to harvest cowslips in many parts of the UK.
Maria Treben rates Cowslip highly as a remedy for insomnia. Here is her recipe for a sleep inducing tea:
50g Cowslip flowers
10g St John’s Wort
Pour 1/4 litre boiling water over a heaped teaspoon of the herbal mix, allow to infuse, add honey if desired and drink in sips before bed. She says, ‘This tea should be preferred to all chemical sleep inducing remedies. Sleeping pills destroy the nervous system whereas this tea removes nervous complaints.’ It is a fairly pokey mix though so check with a herbalist before taking (especially if on medication) or stick with a more gentle blend of herbs such as chamomile, lime flowers and cowslip.
For a easy approach to making a tincture, loosely fill a jar with fresh cowslip flowers, pour vodka over them, cap and leave in the sunlight for fourteen days. Take 3 teaspoons a day as a soothing nervous system tonic. Cowslip was also commonly made into wine.
Primrose flowers also make a lovely infused vinegar which can be used in cooking or salad dressings.
Enjoy these sweet spring soothers and remember to harvest them with care and gratitude, never taking too much from one area.