( Originally Published 1933 )
Lady's Keys, Saint Peter's Wort
The cowslip is a hardy little plant which colors the dry meadows and pastures of Europe and Russian Asia to the Caucasus and Altai Mountains with the sunny flowers resembling a bunch of keys. The name primula is a contraction from the Italian flore de Primavera, flower of spring. The plant is low, soft, pubescent, four to eight inches tall.
Root. The roots consist of thready fibers.
Leaf. The leaves are crinkled, ovate, or ovate-oblong, two to three inches long, hairy beneath, with a winged leaf stem. Each leaf rises from the ground and all of them together form a rosette.
Flower. The soft yellow flowers are sweetly fragrant, of a fresh woodsy scent, and come in early spring. They are three-eighths to one-half an inch across. The calyx is three-quarters of an inch long, hairy, with short ovate-acute tips, and the tube of the corolla is concave. The petals form overlapping folds at the mouth of the flower, which is slightly open. The flower stem bears an umbel of several flowers. The root and flowers are said to have the odor of anise. 'This plant differs from the Primula vulgaris, primrose, which has a radical and single-flowered stem; and from the P. elatior, oxlip, which has the limb of the corolla broad and flat.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
In Greek mythology the primula was Paralisos, son of Flora and Priapus, who died of a broken heart over the loss of his sweetheart and was changed by the Gods into this yellow flower of spring. There is a superstition that if planted upside down the primroses will come up variegated. Primula veris and Primula auricula are both mentioned in Prince's catalogue in 1790, and in Bartram's of 1814.
Medicine. The whole plant is known to be gently narcotic, the flowers more so than the leaves. The "National Standard Dispensary," 1916, says, however, the primula is unimportant medicinally.
Cosmetic. Parkinson says: "Of the juice, or water from the flowers of cowslips divers gentlewomen know how to cleanse the skin from spots or discolourings therein as also to take away the wrinkles thereof and cause the skin to become smooth and faire.
Food. Mrs. Leyel says a tea of the flowers at night has a decided narcotic tendency.
John Evelyn gives a recipe for cowslip wine, which requires three pecks of the flowers, "being used to two gallons of water." The leaves are made into salads, and the English, according to Eleanour Rohde, used both leaves and flowers constantly for a potherb, in cowslip cream, puddings, and tarts, as well as in wine. In olden days, and perhaps even now, they candied and pickled the flowers, and made cowslip tea, syrup, and conserves. Cow-slip wine is said to resemble the muscatel wines of southern France.
Primula veris can be raised from seed or increased by dividing the plants. It likes a good garden soil and some protection from cold winds. In my garden it has always done best when shaded for part of the day.