Cowslip – characteristics, cultivation and use

cowslip © Stephan Budke

The cowslip is the epitome of spring bloomers, but in recent decades it has become very rare. Therefore, it is under nature protection and must not be collected. But you can enjoy them when you meet them and in the garden. For naturopathy, the cowslip has been playing a major role in the treatment of sinusitis or persistent colds for many years.

Profile of cowslip:

Scientific name: Primula veris

Plant family: primrose family (Primulaceae)

Other names: common cowslip, cowslip primrose

Sowing time / Planting time: September – October

Flowering period: March – May

Harvest time: March – May

Useful plant parts: leaves, flowers, roots

Location: sunny to partially shaded

Soil quality: sandy and calcareous soils

These information are for temperate climate!

Use as a medicinal herb: cough, whooping cough, flu infections, laryngitis, migraine, toothache

Use as aromatic herb: leaves for salads, flowers for desserts and fruit salads

Plant characteristics and classification of cowslip

Origin and occurrence of cowslip

The cowslip is a plant native to Europe whose range extends from Western Europe to West Asia. It is a common weed, which can be found especially in dry locations such as poor meadows, slopes, regions with sandy soil and wasteland. In the mountains, cowslip is occasionally found up to 2,000 m (6,500 feet) altitude.

Not to be mistaken is the common cowslip (Primula veris) with the oxlip (Primula elatior), which in contrast can be found on damp locations such as streams, humid forest areas or at river and lake shores.

Plant order of cowslip

The common cowslip (Primula veris) belongs to the large family of primrose plants (Primulaceae). In the narrower classification, the species belongs as well as their closer relatives the oxlip or the snowbell to the genus of primroses (Primula). Altogether this kind counts more than 500 kinds.

Look and characteristics of cowslip


Cowslips are typically herbaceous and perennial plants, which usually reach stature heights between 10 and 40 cm (4 and 16 in). The plant forms strong, thick and strikingly fibrous rhizomes. These rhizomes are hibernating organs of the plant.


The thick leaves of the cowslip are usually of light green color, lanceolate to ovate, strikingly structured and slightly sawn at the edge. From the base of the leaf to the tip of the leaf, white to slightly yellowish colored leaves pass through. The leaves are up to 20 cm (8 in) long and 5 cm (2 in) wide and arranged as a rosette. Typical leaf stems are not recognizable, but present.


Its flowering period is from March to May. Then, on short hairy stems, tiny bright yellow tubular flowers with pale green calyx are formed, arranged in umbels. What distinguishes the common cowslip from other species are the orange spots found in the middle of each petal. In addition, the flowers exude a pleasantly sweet scent.


After flowering, spherical capsules are formed with pale green bracts containing the seeds of the cowslip. The plant tends to self-sowing and forms at appropriate locations quickly dense populations. As a rule, the dark brown seeds are ripe from late August to mid-September.

Cowslip – cultivation and care

Overview of cultivation conditions

Location – sunny to partially shaded

Soil sandy, low in nutrients and calcareous

Sowing time September to October

Planting distance at least 25 cm (10 in)

Fertilization not necessary

Watering sparingly

Harvest spring (only self-cultivation)


Ideal for cowslips are sunny locations with calcareous, barren, sandy and therefore nutrient-poor soils. But it also grows in the semi-shade, which sometimes gets better in very hot regions.


The cowslip finds optimal growth conditions in nutrient- and humus-rich soils with a high calcium content. Fresh, loamy clay soils are ideal. But, too nutrient-rich soils cause that the roots burn and the cowslip can no longer absorb nutrients.


If you want to cultivate cowslip from seeds, some details are to be considered. Cowslip seeds need several weeks of freezing temperatures to germinate. Before this cold period, the seeds should be kept moist and warm for a short time. In the field, from mid-September to early October, the seeds can be incorporated directly into the soil (about 1.5 cm deep (0.6 in)). A planting distance of at least 25 cm (10 in) per plant should be maintained. The germination time can be up to 6 months.

  • First store the seeds for about four weeks at about 15 to 20° / 59 to 68 °F warm and moist.
  • To do this, you can use a seed tray with moist sand and place it on the windowsill.
  • Then store the seeds at temperatures between – 4 and + 4 °C / 25 and 39 °F, preferably in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator.
  • This phase should last about six weeks.
  • After the cooling period, storage takes place at temperatures between 5 and 10 °C / 41 and 50 °F.
  • This phase should also be kept for a few weeks.
  • Avoid large temperature fluctuations as well as sudden, abrupt increases to over 20 °C / 59 °F.
  • Temperatures are best increased slowly.


Full grown plants can be transplanted outdoors from mid-May on. The cultivation with finished plants is much easier than the cultivation of seeds. A planting distance of 25 cm (10 in) should be kept, otherwise diseases may come up. Incidentally, cowslip also grows very well on balconies or terraces.


Dividing is a great way to lighten up stocks, but also to rejuvenate older plants and inspect for disease. Pest infestation or, unfortunately, very common viral infections are often most noticeable on the roots. The right time for the division is after flowering.


Cowslips are adapted strategists that usually do not need special care. Only on very hot summer days or in very small planters more frequent watering is necessary. In the field, occasional watering is sufficient at longer dry periods. Shorter dry periods do not affect the cowslip in most cases.


Additional fertilization is not necessary in the field. For potted cultures, a standard herbal fertilizer, which should be administered twice a year is sufficient.

Diseases and pests

As a rule, cowslips are not attacked by pests. The plant contains some secondary ingredients that have a deterrent effect on many predators. Exceptions are some weevils and occasionally thrips. Most illnesses usually arise as a result of overprotective care or locational difficulties. For example, yellow leaves are often produced if the plant was watered too much. In rare cases magnesium deficiency is the cause. Very rarely, an infestation with nematodes can be observed. Holes and brown spots on the leaves may indicate this. Older cowslip species are susceptible to various viral diseases caused, for example, by mosaic virus. Often the viruses are transmitted by tools or aphids.


Common cowslips are frost tolerant and hardy. Towards autumn, the leaves usually die off and reappear in March. In mild winters it may also be possible for the leaves to stay.

Use of cowslip

Cowslip in the kitchen

In the past, the leaves of the cowslip were used to provide vitamin C to the poorer population. They were occasionally consumed as vegetables, much like spinach or kale.

Cowslips are also suitable for consumption and also quite tasty. They help us to absorb magnesium better and thus prevent a deficiency. For this purpose, a combination with magnesium-rich wild plants such as the white goosefoot, stinging nettle, bear´s breeches, common bistort and Good King Henry.

Especially the flowers taste honey sweet and serve as a decoration for desserts. Furthermore, it is also possible to candy them and to eat as sweet.

Young leaves are suitable for salads, or they are cooked like spinach. Mixed with other vegetables, they are also good to use.

Cowslip as a medicinal herb

Cowslips have a long tradition in folk medicine. They were then used primarily for upper respiratory complaints.

In antiquity and the Middle Ages, the cowslip was recommended for abdominal pain, bladder stones and for strengthening the heart. For Hildegard von Bingen the cowslip had more of a spiritual background. She recommended the plant for depression, melancholy and headache. It should drive away the evil spirits and create a divine connection.

Cowslip can be used for these ailments and diseases

  • bronchitis
  • cold
  • constipation
  • dizziness
  • edema
  • gingivitis
  • gout
  • headache
  • heart failure
  • insomnia
  • laryngitis
  • lung infection
  • migraine
  • mouth ulcers
  • neuralgia
  • rheumatism
  • sore throat
  • stomatitis
  • vitamin C deficiency
  • whooping cough

Medicinal properties

  • analgesic
  • anti-inflammatory
  • antispasmodic
  • blood purifier
  • diuretic
  • expectorant
  • hemostatic
  • reassurin
  • stimulating metabolism
  • sweaty

As the cowslip has a relaxing and expectorant effect, it is very suitable as tea for cough. Above all, it works well when the mucus is stuck. It is particularly popular for relieving an Age cough when the weakening heart causes the fluid to build up in the lungs. In these cases, it relieves the coughing of the fluid and thereby relieves the circulation.

In addition to coughing, the folk medicine also uses cowslip for nervousness and neuralgia. Even migraine should be alleviated.

Preparation of a cowslip tea

Time needed: 10 minutes

This is how you prepare a cowslip tea at home

  1. put two teaspoons of cowslip roots or flowers in a cup (use a tea strainer)

  2. dash with of boiling water

  3. let it steep for 10 minutes

  4. then strain and drink in small sips

From this tea you drink one to three cups daily

As with all medicinal herbs, you should take a break after six weeks of continuous use and temporarily drink another tea with a similar effect. Afterwards you can drink cowslip tea again for six weeks. The break prevents possible unwanted long-term effects and the desired cowslip effectiveness is maintained and does not diminish through habituation.

Preparation of a cowslip tincture

  • dash flowers of cowslip in a screw-cap jar with double-distilled corn schnapps or spirit of wine until all parts of the plant are covered
  • allow the mixture to drain for 2 to 6 weeks
  • then strain and fill in a dark bottle

This tincture is taken one to three times a day 10-50 drops. If the tincture is too concentrated, you can dilute it with water.

Cowslip tincture can be used against migraine, neuralgia and dizzy spells.

Side effects and instructions for use

Cowslips are generally well tolerated. In rare cases, gastric pain or nausea may occur, often associated with saponins. People with chronic irritable stomach or frequent chronic diarrhea should abstain from eating cowslip.

Sensitive people sometimes get an itchy rash (allergy) by touching the cowslip. When used internally, these sensitive people may experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.


Ask your doctor or pharmacist. Visiting this page can not replace the visit to the doctor. For serious or unclear complaints, consult your doctor.

Buy cowslip – What to pay attention to?

Fresh plants can often be bought on plant markets, DIY markets and of course online. When buying, the leaf structure and the underside of the leaves should be looked at closely. If yellow margins, minor herbivore damage or small white dots are visible, you should refrain from buying. The price for a plant is about 3 to 5 EUR / $.

The botanical name can also be important. If you really want to buy the common cowslip, you should pay attention to the Latin name Primula veris. Occasionally, the oxlip (Primula elatior) and the common primrose (Primula vulgaris) are also sold as a cowslip. All three species, however, are completely different to cultivate. The common cowslip is the species that needs the least care.

Many manufacturers also offer seeds of the cowslip. It should be mentioned that planting with fresh plants is much easier. The prices for seed is about 2 to 4 EUR /$.

For healing purposes, dried flowers and roots can be purchase, with prices that are usually quite high. It must be differentiated, however, whether roots or flowers should be used. For persistent flu or for treatment of sinusitis, only the roots should be used as they contain high levels of the required Triterpensaponin.

There are also some ready-made products on the market, which contain cowslip extracts and also usually have a good effect.

Pick cowslip

Without authorization, cowslip may not be picked or harvested.


  1. Can you help?

    I bought some cowslip seeds and put them in the fridge for 4 weeks re stratification, which I understand (From another source) is the shortest period they should go through stratification.

    Can I now remove them (No signs of germination) into pots, or onto wet tissue, in a room temperature environment?

    • I updated the info about sowing cowslip. I hope this helps and is better understandable. In your case, the germination did not take place. Try again, or wait till autumn and sow them directly in the field; if it gets cold enough during winter in your region.

  2. I read elsewhere that the name and location might suggest cowslip does well in a cow pasture, even thriving near cow manure.
    In my garden could I cut the flowers and leaves at the same time expecting another crop?

    • Plants and their names. This is always interesting. In Germany, e.g., it is called key flower, due to similarity of the inflorescence with a bunch of keys.
      Generally you don’t need to cut the plant at all, only if you don’t want to self-seed. I don’t think that there will be a second bloom, if you cut the flower or the whole plant.

  3. Like keys my flowers are hanging down.
    In English too a common name refers to keys. “Keys of heaven.”

  4. I have seen a blueish purpleish coloured cowslip, but can find no reference at all for a plant of that colour.
    Although the flowers are identical to that of a cowslip – is that the right name for this plant.

    • Maybe you saw another member of the primrose. Maybe Primula pruhoniciana, Primula acaulis or Primula elatior?

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