cowslipThis spring, I am going to write a series of blogs entitled “Plant of the Week”. It will bring you information about particular plants that are looking good at this time of year.

Today, I have chosen the Cowslip, Primula veris.

The cowslip is in the Primulaceae family

This includes the primrose (Primula vulgaris) and all the colourful hybrids sold in garden centres. In the wild, primroses are usually a pale yellow, but can also come in pink. This is because the Scottish biennial Primrose Primula scotica or the lovely Bird’s eye primrose Primula farinosa have interbred with the perennial Primula vulgaris.

The cowslip is always yellow, and a brighter yellow than primroses.

Cowslips growing on grass bankTheir flowers are smaller and their flower stems longer. They are loved by bees, and a particular joy at this time of year, especially when massed on a grass verge (as pictured right). They flower before the grass gets long, and needs cutting. Although, if you want cowslips in your grass, it is best to leave mowing until they have gone to seed, in early summer, and mow on the highest setting. If you are starting from scratch, you can sow a slow growing fescue grass that won’t swamp the cowslips.

They are less common than primroses, slower growing, and less easy to propagate from seed. The seeds require a period of winter chill before they will germinate, and seeds can survive many years before germinating when conditions are just right for them. So if you try sowing them and they don’t come up the first year, don’t throw the compost out, as they may well just be taking their time – sometimes it can take two or three years before they eventually germinate, and in the wild, seeds will last for many more years than this.

Their natural habitat is dry chalky soil, meadows, grassy clearings in woods, and banks.

I planted a cowslip in ‘The Sunny Front Garden’, which is thriving, so they can do well in borders, as long as they don’t get swamped by other plants and conditions are right. Cowslips would be more common on grass verges by the side of roads, if we altered our mowing regime to suit them, by mowing less often, later in the season, and, importantly, taking the clippings away. The grass cuttings act as a mulch, stifling the growth of wild flowers, except for the most robust, such as Cowparsley, nettles and dock.

There are also non-native members of the primulaceae family, which can make useful garden plants, particularly the Japanese drumstick primroses, such as Primula denticulata or candelabra primroses, such as Primula bulleyana, and Primula pulverulenta which like damp conditions and work well in bog gardens, as pictured below with Astilbes and ferns.

Candelabra primulas with Astilbes and Ferns

Next week I will be looking at another seasonal plant.

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