Cowslip

(Primula veris) An unromantic name for such a plant, for cowslip (OE cuslyppe) means cow dung. It must have arisen from observation that a meadow full of cowpats suddenly became full of cowslips as well. Oxlip has a similar derivation. What is clear is that cowslip is not cow's lip, in spite of Ben Jonson's

"Bright dayes-eyes and the lippes of Cowes". It is said that cattle have an aversion to the cowslip, and they will refuse to eat it. It is further said that cowslips would give them the cramp, or colic, and the cattle will become "elfshot" (A R Forbes. 1905).

In Lincolnshire, it was believed that if a cowslip root was set the wrong way up, it would come up a primrose (Gutch & Peacock), and in Cheshire, the result would be that it would come up red (Hole. 1937). Another superstition is that if you dream of them in bloom, it is a sign of a sudden change in your fortunes (Raphael). Unfortunately, the dream book does not say whether for good or ill. Another belief is that you only hear the nightingale's song where there are a lot of cowslips (Swainson. 1886), for they have, according to an old belief, a particular liking for such a place. There is one piece of weather lore - if the cowslip's stalks are short, then we are in for a dry summer (Inwards). Some say, too, that we never get warm, settled weather till the cowslips are finished (Page. 1977), and if they were bloom in winter, it would be an omen of death (Hole. 1937).

There is a kind of divination game that children used to play with cowslips, called Tisty-Tosty, or Tosty-Tosty. Blossoms, picked on Whit Sunday for preference, were tied into a ball. Strictly, the balls were the tisty-tosties, though the growing flowers got the name, too. Lady Gomme mentioned the game as belonging to Somerset, but it had a much wider spread than that. The cowslip ball is tossed about while the names of various boys or girls are called, of the time-honoured Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor. fashion, till it drops. The name called at that moment is taken to be the "one indicated by the oracle", as Udal puts it, for the rhyme spoken at the beginning is:

Tisty-tosty tell me true

Who shall I be married to?

That is quoted as a Dorset rhyme, but the same is recorded in Herefordshire (Leather). The game is also known in Wales, where the purpose is different, for the rhyme there is:

Pistey, Postey, four and twenty,

How many years shall I live?

John Clare (The shepherd's calendar)called the tisty-tosties cucking balls:

And cowslip cucking balls to toss

Above the garlands swinging light .

A different tradition here, obviously. Roy Genders, who used the name cucka-balls, says they were often threaded on twine and hung from one window to another across the street.

Both flowers and leaves have their culinary uses -they have been used in salads since medieval times

(Brownlow), or the leaves can be boiled with other herbs (Jason Hill). Paigle Pudding is mentioned as a Hertfordshire dish (Jones-Baker. 1977), made from the dried petals, flour, etc., Cowslip tea is still made, and has been a country delicacy for a long time. Flora Thompson enjoyed it, and said it is made from the peeps (or pips, a name usually reserved for the dried flowers from which the wine ought to be made (Bloom), by pouring boiling water over them, then letting it stand for a few minutes to infuse. It can then be drunk with or without sugar. Cowslip wine is an excellent sedative, apparently (Grieve. 1931).

Izaak Walton, in CompleatAngler (1653) recommended what he called Minnow-tansies. The minnows should be "washed well in salt, and their heads and tails cut off, and their guts taken out and not washed after". They make "excellent Minnow-tansies, that is fried in yolks of eggs, the flowers of cowslips and primroses and a little tansy, thus used they make a dainty dish of meat".

An old name for cowslip is Palsywort, which shows that it must have been used for that complaint. It must have been the trembling or nodding of the flowers that suggested it. Grigson. 1955 pointed out that the medieval Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum had commended the cowslip as a cure for palsy or paralysis (hence another old name, Herb Paralysy). Gerard repeated the prescription - "cowslips are commended against the pain of the joints called the gout, and slacknesse of the sinues, which is the palsie". He goes back to it - "a conserve made with the flours of cowslips and sugar prevaileth wonderfully against the palsie, convulsions, cramps, and all diseases of the sinues". Culpeper, too, mentions it - "because they strengthen the brain and nerves, the Greeks gave them the name paralysis". It still appears in herbal medicine books as a remedy for giddiness, nervous debility or excitement (Wickham), and herbalists still use cowslip leaves as a sedative and pain-killer (Conway).

"An unguent made with the juice of Cowslips and oile of Linseed, cureth all scaldings or burnings with fire, water, or otherwise"(Gerard). This unguent used to be well-known as a good thing to improve the complexion (Dyer. 1889), and is still recommended (Conway). Culpeper says "Venus lays claim to this herb as her own, and it is under the sign Aries, and our city dames know well enough the ointment or distilled water of it adds beauty, or at least restores it when it is lost".

Gypsies use an infusion of the dried flowers to allay convulsions and to lower the temperature (Vesey-Fitzgerald). That is why cowslip wine or tea is taken for measles and other fevers (Hampshire FWI), and herbalists prescribe the root decoction or extract to treat ailments like whooping cough, bronchitis and pneumonia (Schauenberg & Paris). The strangest usage must be this Irish one for deafness: Take the cowslip, roots, blossoms and leaves, clean them well, then bruise and press them in a linen cloth, add honey to the juice thus pressed out, put it in a bottle, and pour a few drops into the nostrils and ears of the patient, who is to lie on his back. Then after some time, turn him on his face till the water pours out, carrying away whatever obstruction lay on the brain (Wilde. 1890).

One series of names for the cowslip starts with Herb Peter. Then follows a whole Bunch of Keys (Macmil-lan), all from the supposed resemblance to the badge of St Peter - a bunch of keys. The legend is that St Peter once dropped the keys of heaven, and the first cowslip grew up where they fell (Greenoak). So we have St Peter's Keys and St Peter's Herb, or Keywort, and Keys of Heaven, etc., as old names for cowslip.

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