cowslip defined in 1912 yearcowslip - COWSLIP (Primula veris);
cowslip - Undoubtedly the Cowslip is the fairies' flower. The poets have always known this and have told us so many a time. Shakespeare was well aware of it - what did he not know? - and it is one of his own fairies who, out one midsummer night on business for the Fairy Queen, specially tells us that "the Cowslips tall her pensioners be"; indeed, the fairy task that very night was to gather dew drops and "hang a pearl in every Cowslip's ear." That wilful sprite Ariel always chose the Cowslip bell for his retiring chamber, and the drooping blossoms were ever a haven of refuge for "the little folk" when rain unkindly spoiled their revels. But the fairies found yet other uses for the Cowslip, and we have on the authority of another poet that: -
"What time the fairies made them orbs of green,
And gave to every herb mysterious power,
Thou wast the chosen crest of Elfin Queen,
Her banner tall in battle's perilous hour."
Apart from fairy tradition, legend also has much that is beautiful to suggest about this flower. In Sweden and Holland it was known as the "Key of May" which belonged to the Goddess Hulda, and admitted to her treasure palace. The children were lured by Cowslips to the door of this palace, and when they reached it this key flower opened it and they could peep in and behold wondrous treasure of gold and jewels. This they might gather, but then they must carefully lock the door again, or nevermore might they come, for Hulda only admitted those to her secrets who guarded and cared for them. Which is, of course, all a parable, for Hulda was the Goddess of Nature, and the Cowslip the key-flower of the spring. It is curious how the "key" idea centres round the Cowslip. In Norse mythology it was dedicated to Freya, the Key Virgin; in Germany, it was "Our Lady's Keys," and dedicated to the Virgin Mary; another German legend tells us that once St. Peter found folks were getting into Heaven by a back and unauthorised entrance, and in his agitation he dropped his keys, which fell to earth and are the Cowslips, and so they are known as the "Keys of Heaven," or sometimes "Herb Peter," or simply "Key Flowers." The German maidens call it "Marriage Key." Probably the facts that the drooping heads of flowers bear a slight resemblance to a bunch of keys, and that the flower itself is essentially fresh and spring-like are the material out of which has been woven these charming fancies.
Quite early in the springtime the Cowslip begins to produce its leaves; at first each is just two tight coils rolled backwards and lying side by side; these slowly unroll, and a leaf, similar to that of a primrose but shorter and rounder, appears. In their young days these are sometimes used in country salads. All the leaves of a plant lie almost flat to the ground, rosette-wise, and in the centre of the rosette there rises a long stalk, on the tip of which, held straight up, are a number of palest green crinkled bags. The bags open one by one, disclosing golden contents, and as they do so they droop over to one side. The hint of gold becomes a golden disc with scalloped edges, and on this disc are five red spots, one on each petal that forms it.
"In their gold coats spots you see,
These be rubies fairy favours,
In those freckles lie their savours."
For these "rubies," reputed gifts of the Fairy Queen, were taken of old as a sign that the flower held a magic value for the complexion, a belief warmly endorsed by Parkinson. "The juice of these flowers is commended to cleanse the spots or marks of the face, whereof some gentlewomen have found good experience," he says, while another herbalist adds further testimony that an ointment made of Cowslip "taketh away the spots and wrinkles of the skin and adds beauty exceedingly."
The calyx of the flower, formed of five united sepals, is long, wrinkled and scored by veins, and the petals, perforce, have a long tube in order to carry their discs beyond it. On this tube the stamens are set (they are almost all head and without stalk to speak of); sometimes they are set just round the mouth of the tube, sometimes they are placed half-way down it, so that on some flowers we can see a ring of stamen-heads at the centre of the disc, at other times there is no such ring, but instead a small, round, green knob takes its place. This is the top of the long column rising from the seed-case down in the depths. In the flowers where the stamen ring is at the mouth of the tube this column is much shorter, and the head only reaches half-way up the tube; to be precise, it reaches to exactly that height at which the stamens are set in the flowers with long columns. Therefore, there are two kinds of flowers in the Cowslip - thrum-eyed with the high stamen ring, and pin-eyed with the long column. If we gather a stalk of flowers we can see at a glance whether they are thrum-eyed or pin-eyed; they will all be either one or the other, for they are not mixed; indeed, we never find both kinds of flowers even on the same plant. The idea, of course, is to ensure cross-fertilisation, for a long-tongued insect after honey will thrust down the tube of a Cowslip to the bottom where the liberal supply of nectar lies, and it will get its proboscis dusted with pollen, and at each flower on that plant the dust will fall on the same spot. Eventually it is bound to visit the other kind of flower on another plant, and the dust on its tongue is now in precisely the right place to be rubbed on the top of the ovary column, and thus cross-fertilisation is effected. It is sometimes said that only from a thrum-eyed flower can a pin-eyed flower be fertilised and vice versa, that is, that only the pollen of long stamens can fertilise a long-columned ovary; so, too, a short-columned ovary must needs have pollen from short stamens if it is to produce seed. But though no doubt the plant aims at this cross-fertilisation and generally ensures it, yet, if it fail to happen, then the pollen from the long stamens can and does fertilise its own short style when the flower withers. It is, however, obviously not possible for the pin-eyed flower to fertilise itself in any case. A humble-bee collecting pollen appears to shun the pin-eyed flowers, since it cannot get down to the low stamens, but it settles on the thrum-eyed flowers and "holds the anthers at the mouth of the flower in its forefeet, bites the pollen loose with its mandibles, and sweeps it with the tarsal brushes of the mid-legs into the collecting-hairs of the hind legs." If it visit a pin-eyed flower by accident, it flies away immediately. The fruit is a single-chambered capsule in which a number of seeds are ranged round a central column.
The flowers possess plenty of honey, a very distinctive and fresh fragrance, and juices that are somewhat narcotic. In olden days they were in great request for homely remedies, their special value lying in strengthening the nerves and the brain, also "to ease paines in the head, and is account next with Betany, the best for that purpose." Cowslip wine had a great and deserved reputation, and is still largely drunk in country parts, the Midlands in particular producing it. It is made from the "peeps " - that is, the yellow petal-rings - in the following way: - A gallon of "peeps," with 4 lb. of lump sugar and the rind of three lemons is added to a gallon of cold spring water. A cup of fresh yeast is included and the liquor stirred every day for a week. It is then put into a barrel with the juice of the lemons, and left to "work" - i.e. ferment. When "quiet" it is corked down for some months, say eight or nine, and ultimately bottled. In some places in Cowslip-time women stand in the market with great baskets of " peeps " for sale. The wine should be perfectly clear and of a pale golden colour, and has almost the value of a liqueur. In certain children's ailments Cowslip wine, given in small doses as a medicine, is particularly beneficial. Even Pope wrote: -
"For want of rest
Lettuce and Cowslip wine probatum est."
The Cowslip has many country names in addition to "Key Flower" and "Herb Peter" already referred to. Thus there are many variations of its usual name, namely, "Cooslip," "Coostropple," "Cowslap," "Cowstrop," "Cow's-mouth" and "Cow's-troop," which all have reference to the wrinkled calyx and its resemblance to a cow's throttle, or to a cow's lip. Thus "Coostropple" is "cow's gullet" in Norfolk dialect. The "Cooslop" of Yorkshire is derived from "keslop," a local term for the prepared stomach of a calf used in cheese-making, the wrinkling of the calyx recalling the corrugated appearance of the stomach. "Paigle," or "Peggie," a familiar name for the flower, has a foreign derivation. It comes from the Italian paglienola, meaning a "spangle," and its suitability is obvious. "Crewel" - a Devonshire name - "Buckles" and "Plumrocks" are names not easy to explain, but "Fairy-cups," "May-flower," "Petty Mulleins" (like little Mulleins) are simple enough. "Palsywort" and "Arthritica," corrupted to "Passwort," and "Artetyke" respectively, refer to its medicinal value in these ailments.
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