Cowslip benefits from late planting and a winter chill

The flowers of cowslip have a pleasant fragrance, although the plant's name suggests that they may not be so sweet when you first find them. It has been suggested that cowslip derives from the Old English for "cow dung," possibly because it was usually found growing wild among manure in pastures.

Although it is less common now, cowslip was once a ubiquitous feature in meadows and grasslands in the United Kingdom. The Stewkley Wildlife Reserve of Buckinghamshire, England, says the plant was valued for a number of reasons. These included its edible leaves and flowers, which could also be used to make tea and wine; medicinal properties, such as alleviating headaches; and even collecting the flower heads to bundle together into balls for children to play with.

The common cowslip, or Primula veris, is a member of the primrose family. An herbaceous perennial, with a rosette of soft green leaves and bright yellow tubular flowers. The seed company Thompson & Morgan says the plant typically grows to a height and spread of nine to 10 inches.

When sown in the spring, cowslips will not bloom until the following year because they require cold to break a period of dormancy. However, this also means that you can enjoy the plant in the spring if you put down seeds late in the season. The English seed company Meadowmania says seeds sown in the autumn will germinate in the spring, flowering in April or May.

Cowslip will work well in poor soils. The Royal Horticultural Society in England says the plant will tolerate clay, chalk, sand, or loam. Choose a site with full or partial exposure to sunlight.

Whichever soil you end up choosing, it should drain well. The soil should be kept damp, but not waterlogged.

Cowslip is a rather hardy plant. The North Carolina State University Extension says it works best in USDA Zones 5 to 8, but is also not vulnerable to summer conditions since it can tolerate heat and humidity.

However, you'll still want to keep an eye out for certain problems. The Royal Horticultural Society says aphids, spider mites, and slugs are some of the pests that can harm cowslip. Gray mold and leaf spot may also occur.

The plant can be used in a number of settings. These include borders, containers, and rock gardens.

The flower petals of cowslip work particularly well as an edible garnish. Thompson & Morgan says they can be used on salads or crystallized for a bright cake decoration.

If you have sensitive skin, be careful about contacting the leaves of cowslip. This may result in a mild allergic reaction which can cause irritation.

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