This is the fifth spring since Dan oversowed the newly landscaped banks at the front of the house with native meadow seed and now the cowslips (Primula veris) are really starting to show themselves. This year we have counted over fifty individuals on the bank immediately in front of the house.
Their luminous, pale green calcyes, like tiny inflated bladders, announced their presence long before the golden flowers unfurled from within them. The sturdy, felted stems rise up from a basal rosette of heavily textured foliage and can hold up to thirty scalloped flowers, each marked with five orange spots, on wire-thin stalks in a loose umbel. Their resemblance to a bunch of keys gives them another common name of Key Flower. They have a notably long season of three to four weeks, as the flowers open in succession in each cluster and with a relay of flowering stems as newer ones rise up to replace those that fade. They come on stream just as their cousins, the primroses, start to dim and so continue to provide early nectar for long-tongued bees, butterflies and moths. I picked some last weekend and they have been unexpectedly long-lasting in a vase and with the most delicious spiced apricot scent. I imagine this perfume is one of the notable attractions of cowslip wine, the romance of which haunts the hedgerows of Thomas Hardy and Laurie Lee.
The farmer who lived here before us grazed the fields with cattle, but after we relaxed the grazing regime we were delighted to find that a large colony of cowslips was still intact in the Tynings, the fields that our neighbours call the Hospital Fields. Although the colony has not proliferated quickly we have seen definite evidence of an increase in numbers and the start of an expansion of the main colony. Fine-tuning the mowing and grazing regime to increase the presence of flowering plants such as these is one of our constant challenges.
Due to bad agricultural practice in the 1970’s and ‘80’s the cowslip almost became an endangered species, but its inclusion in commercial meadow mixes over the last twenty years and more has seen it make a resurgence on motorway embankments and in new meadow creation schemes.
Plantlife, the British charity that supports native wild plant conservation, is currently running a Cowslip Survey. Cowslips come in two forms, ‘S-Morph’ and ‘L-Morph’. In the former the plural stamens (male) are presented foremost in the corolla, while in the latter form it is the singular stigma (female) that is seen. In healthy cowslip populations there should be around a 50/50 mix of forms, however this gets out of balance if there is a change in agricultural practice, land or habitat management. The survey has been launched to gain a broader understanding of how healthy British cowslip populations are and, consequently, the wider health of our native grasslands. On a cursory visual check today it would appear that our colonies, both new and long-established, are pretty well balanced, but I will definitely be taking a more detailed look for the survey to get a better understanding of how we can maximise the species diversity in our meadows.
Words and photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 17 April 2021