Cowslip survey - Take a peek in a cowslip to help our meadows!

© Caroline Coleman

With a myriad of local names such as ‘Cowslops’, ‘Fairy cups’ and ‘Bunch of keys’, cowslips are steeped in folklore and one of our most familiar spring wild flowers, popping up on banks, verges and meadows in April and May. The drooping, butter-yellow flowers with orange throats are an iconic sight, but have you ever looked closely at one?

This April, Plantife is asking us all to take a close look at cowslips and record what type we see; Are they an "S" or "L" type of cowslip? The difference is in the flowers:

  • The "S-morph" has the male parts of the flower (the stamen) which are easy to spot
  • The "L-morph" has only the top of the female part (the stigma) visible

Why do I need to look at cowslips?

In healthy cowslip populations, there should be equal numbers of both types of flower to enable successful breeding. However, this 50:50 ratio becomes imbalanced when the cowslip population declines due to loss of habitat or if there is a change in agricultural practices. Knowing the ratios in the area helps us understand more about the quality of our grasslands.

Researchers at the University of Tartu, Estonia have reported greater instances of the S morph than the L morph in cowslip populations. This could indicate pressures of land use change and declining habitat health. As genetic diversity within populations decreases this could make cowslips more vulnerable to climate change.

Sadly, wildflower meadows and species-rich grasslands now cover less than 1% of the UK, and the remaining meadows are fragmented, neglected and forgotten; Once common meadows species have declined, yet a healthy wildflower meadow can play home to an unparalleled and concentrated diversity of over 700 wild flowers and can support over 1000 species of insects - Meadows provide one of our most iconic wildlife spectacles: a wealth of beauty, scents and sounds that everyone should be able to enjoy.

To get started in the cowslip survey, and help Plantlife and its European partners understand more about the health of our grasslands, visit:

5 things about cowslips

  • The cowslip’s Latin name, Primula veris, comes from prima rosa meaning ‘first rose’, while veris means ‘of the spring’
  • Cowslips have a sweet, fruity smell, which many liken to apricot
  • Cowslip Sunday was a tradition in Lambley, Nottinghamshire to celebrate the arrival of spring and held on the first Sunday in May; It was a day for celebration, storytelling, performances and for picking cowslips, which grew in abundance, to make wine. The tradition was revived in recent years
  • In the language of flowers, cowslips symbolise grace
  • They may be known as Cowsups, cowpats and cooslops because our ancestors noted that they tended to flower where a cow had ‘slupped'.

Posted: April 23, 2021