Not quite as common a sight as its very close relative the primrose, the cowslip (Primula veris) has an ancient and well deserved reputation as a powerful medicinal plant. Unfortunately too rare in most places to pick from the wild , they are easy to grow in the garden and will spread happily given the right conditions.
The flowers are the medicinal parts most used and have a delicate but really interesting perfume that lingers on the nostrils for quite some time.
They were once held in great esteem for conditions involving the nerves being useful for all kinds of headaches, nerve pain, paralysis and palsy, (sometimes called ‘palsywort’ in the past), to alleviate insomnia, irritability, tension and anxiety. They were often taken at this time of year to raise the spirits and banish melancholy. They are quite potent in their effects on the nervous system, so much so that they are categorised as mildly narcotic in many herbals, both ancient and modern. For this reason they should be taken at the correct dose and not for long periods. A cup of herbal tea before bed made from chamomile, cowslip and passion-flower for example will help to induce a deep and restful nights sleep.
The flowers can also be infused in water and used as a cosmetic face wash to improve the skin, reduce wrinkles and to ‘restore beauty where it is lost’ as the old Herbals say. Add a handful to a bath to soothe away anxiety and tension before bedtime.
The leaves and roots also contain pain killing salicylates and the root is rich in substances that promote expectoration so can be used for coughs, especially tickly, nervous type coughs, whooping cough and bronchitis and can also used as an external compress or ointment for rheumatism and arthritis.
To harvest the flowers, gently pluck the fully opened flowers from the green calyx and dry slowly on a tray lined with paper until absolutely dry. Store in an airtight jar in a cool dark place, dosage of dried flowers being 1-2 teaspoons infused in a cup of boiling water. Take a cup an hour before bedtime for insomnia or take up to 3 cups daily for its other medicinal uses. The flowers and a few young leaves can also be added to a salad, or the flowers can be made into a clear sunny yellow wine whilst the roots and flowers (together or singly) made into a syrup to ease coughs and strengthen the lungs generally. For children, make a strong cup of tea using 2 teaspoons of dried flowers and half a pint of boiling water, allow to cool, squeeze out the flowers and discard them. Add the same quantity of vegetable glycerine to the tea (200 ml of tea, add 200 ml of veg glycerine) and store in a tight lidded bottle in a cool cupboard. Toddlers can be given a half teaspoon daily (not everyday) for excitability, coughs and colds or before bedtime. If anyone is interested in purchasing organic dried cowslip flowers, contact me or leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.
The roots should be harvested before the flowers appear or in Autumn. When picking the flowers or unearthing the roots, be mindful always of next years crop. Leave plenty of flowers to set seed and of course be extra judicial when digging up roots and never collect from the wild.
All in all a beautiful little plant touched with the magic of faery, richly woven into much of our folklore and mentioned in many a Shakespeare play, their delicate appearance cloaking a powerful affinity for soothing our pains and anxieties.