Cowslip cornucopia

Ross Bentley
Est. Reading: 3 minutes

At last, warmer weather, and the promise of sultry evenings and the sound of birdsong at first light.

It is a lovely time of year, marked locally by the arrival of the cattle on the meadows. This year their appearance was celebrated with a Turning On ceremony – a wonderfully quirky event that the Sudbury Common Lands Charity holds every three years and a revival of an old local custom. It involved macebearers, freemen, trustees and volunteer rangers all forming a procession onto the meadows before the mayor inspected the grass and declared it fit for grazing.

The young cattle, emerging from the trailer in obvious delight at their lush surroundings, clearly thought so, as they gambolled off across the meadows.

Bumper year

Talking of things bovine, this month I have been struck by the wide proliferation of cowslips on roadside verges and grassland meadows. It strikes me this is a bumper year for this spring flower. One theory for this fine showing is that the grass has been kept unseasonably short because of all the rain we have had, creating space for the cowslips to grow into.

There is an explosion of cowslips on parts of the Wardman Meadows across the river from Friars Meadow while Cornard Country Park, which Sudbury Common Land Charity rangers manage on behalf of Great Cornard Parish Council, is awash with this member of the primrose family. I spent a lovely couple of hours there a few Saturdays ago, examining clusters of cowslips before stumbling upon a whole field of them. The sun came and went to a backdrop of song from blue tits, robins and wrens.

Cowslips are important for wildlife, their flowers provide an early source of nectar for various insects including early arriving butterflies such as the brimstone. Cowslip is also a food plant for the Duke of Burgundy butterfly.

From slop to slip

I had assumed that the cowslip is so-called because of the tubular nature of the flower heads that bunched up like they are, could be said to resemble cow’s udders. But no, my imagination had got the better of me, and I have since read that centuries ago the flowers were known as cowslops due to their tendency to grow around cow pats. But with a crafty switch of one vowel, slop became slip, creating a more agreeable term that everyone can be happy with.

Back in time when folklore held sway, cowslips were also sometimes referred to as ‘St. Peter’s keys’, ‘Herb Peter’ or ‘keys of heaven.’ These monikers originate from a tale that the drooping flower heads looked like a set of keys, and it was said that cowslips grew where St. Peter had dropped the Key of Earth from Heaven.

County Flower of Essex

These legends hark from an age when all wildflowers were far more plentiful, a time before we ploughed up grassland and meadows from the 1930s onwards, and a few decades later started to use chemical herbicides on an industrial scale.

Conservation charity, Plantlife, says a study of the cultural history of the cowslip suggests that it was once as common as the buttercup. I have seen the odd field full of cowslips this spring and Plantlife says that the cowslip is making a comeback, colonising the growing number of wild spaces we are creating. But nothing on the scale you see with buttercups today.

Interestingly, the cowslip is the county flower for Essex along with the poppy while Suffolk takes the oxlip as its flower. The oxlip is similar looking to the cowslip but has paler yellow flowers that open out further. Oxlips are also a much rarer plant found only in ancient woodland. Bulls Wood near Lavenham, which is managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, is a stronghold of the oxlip and I had intended to make a visit the weekend before last but was put off by the constant rain.

With the better weather hopefully here, I will be able to get out there soon.

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