Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Frühlingsblumen #1 - Cowslip / die Schlüsselblume


Cowslips (Primula veris) are traditionally associated with Spring-time celebrations; adorning Maypoles and church doorways alike, strewn on paths before weddings, and woven into Beltane garlands across Europe. So it is always a lift to the heart to see them in bloom like this.


The German name for cowslip is die Schlüsselblume ('key flower'), from the resemblance of the flower-heads to a bunch of keys - Schlüsselbund. That is a pleasenter analogy than the English derivation of the name, which basically refers to them growing from cow pats.


In English, cowslips have also been known as Our Lady's keys (i.e. the Virgin Mary's keys), and St Peter's keys  (hence it appears in old herbals as 'herb Peter'). The keys referred to here are the keys to Heaven, and another German name for this plant is die Himmelschlüssel (heaven's keys). In folklore, the keys might be to a treasure chest, a secret door, or to the heart of someone you love.


Cowslip blossoms are dedicated to Freyja (and Her various avatars) in northern Europe. Amongst her 'domains' is that of love, beauty, sexuality, and fertility. Welsh  girls used to weave cowslip flowers into 'tisty tosty balls'. They would choose the girl to divine for, then toss the ball to one another whilst singing:

"Tisty Tosty, tell me true,
Who will I be married to?
Tisty Tosty, Cowslip ball,
At my sweetheart's feet you'll fall"

They would then call out the names of likely boys they knew, and if the ball was dropped (perhaps deliberately), the name called out at that moment would be the future bridegroom.


Cowslips are popularly associated across northern Europe with fairies, who are said to sleep curled up in the flower bells. Shakespeare alludes to this in The Tempest where he has Ariel singing (when he has freedom from Prospero):

“Where the bee sucks there suck I
In the cowslip’s bell I lie
There I crouch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly,
After summer merrily
After summer merrily”
- Act 5 Scene 1

Fairycup is another English name for cowslips, suggesting the wee folk drink morning dew from them. Well, it is all getting a bit twee and whimsical, for which I blame the Victorian Romantics and their fairy paintings. Terry Pratchett has a better understanding in his Discworld novels of the fairy realm and its dangers, so I should just remind you that on the Isle of Man cowslips were burnt on May Day / Beltane specifically to get rid of the fairies that hid there, and that you should strew cowslips on the doorstep to stop fairies getting into your house!


PS: I should just add that yes, cowslips do have medicinal properties, mainly for calming the nerves, and for tickly coughs, and  as a diuretic. And the leaves can be eaten in a Spring salad. And the flowers can be used to dye Easter eggs yellow. BUT they are a protected species across Europe and should not be collected in the wild. You can buy wildlife seeds and grow them in your own garden if you really want to use them medicinally or culinary or for weaving Beltane wreaths, but personally I just like to see them in their natural setting.

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