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The common name “cowslip” is used in reference to a number of herbaceous plants found primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. Many cowslips are grown as ornamental plants in gardens in many regions of the world, and some have been used historically in herbal medicine. Many nurseries carry cowslips, for people who wish to cultivate them, and they can also be observed wild in many regions, although wild populations of some species are under threat due to habitat damage and other pressures.
Usually, people are referring to the wild primrose, known formally as Primula veris, when they refer to “cowslip.” These members of the primrose family are native to Scotland, producing the classic rosettes of leaves associated with primroses, along with clusters of flowers on tall stems. These flowers can occur in a range of colors, including yellow and red, and they are common in woodland and partially shaded areas. Wild primroses were once used to make cowslip wine, although this is less common today.
The wild primrose has also been used medicinally in some parts of England. Various preparations of cowslip were used to treat neurological conditions such as tremors, headaches, and seizures, and the plant was also used to make an expectorant for people suffering from congestion. Some herbalists still use cowslip in their treatments, with preparations available from health food stores and practitioners of herbal medicine. Cowslips can also be cultivated in the garden as decorative plants.
The marsh marigold or Caltha palustris is another plant native to the Northern Hemisphere which is sometimes known as a cowslip. As the name would seem to suggest, these plants are native to damp, swampy areas with lots of shade. They are in the buttercup family, developing small almost circular leaves and bright yellow flowers. A common environment for the marsh marigold is along the side of the road in areas with drainage ditches, as the plants can thrive in the swampy environment of the ditch.
Another contender for the title of “cowslip” is the Virginia cowslip or Mertensia virginica. This plant is native to North America, and it was used by some American Indian populations for medical treatments. These plants produce bright blue flowers which look vaguely like bells, explaining the alternate common name of Virginia bluebell. Plants in the genus Dodecatheon, also in the primrose family, are also sometimes referred to as American cowslips or shooting stars in reference to the distinctive flexed shape of their flowers.