Colourful cowslips

Colourful cowslips

©Jon Oakley

What colour comes to mind when you think of spring? Maybe it’s the fresh green of new leaves budding from trees and shoots pushing up from the ground, or the fizz of white spring blossom in hedgerows. One of the most familiar colours of springtime is yellow.

With the buttery gloss of cowslips, the dark saffron of crocuses and pale buttermilk primroses – yellow is in season at this time of year. One of the less assuming yellows found in our native wildflowers is that of the cowslip, here are some tips on where to look out for them and why they’re a spring delight not to miss.

What are cowslips?

Looking a little like a cross between an elongated primrose (to which they are closely related) and a buttercup, cowslips are a beautiful sight. Rising on a tall stem are starbursts of deep yellow flowers that are just starting to appear; they will be in bloom until May. You can find cowslips across Britain, in grasslands such as meadows and on the woodland floor. As more councils leave roadside verges unmown for spring, cowslips are reappearing here too. Wildflower seeds wait it out in the soil, ready for the chance to grow without the threat of being cut down.

Because of the unusual appearance of the flower rosettes, cowslips have many common names including ‘golden drops’ and ‘bunch of keys’. They are also strongly linked with folklore in England because of their previous abundance and early spring flowering.

Are they common? 

The cowslip was once found across the countryside, but the intensification of farming caused severe declines in the 1950s. The cowslip is making a comeback now, as practises change and areas of farmland and roadsides are left for wildlife. 

One species set to benefit is the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, an extremely rare species which is still clinging on in a few pockets of Hampshire - including the Trust’s new Deacon Hill Nature Reserve near Winchester. Their caterpillars rely on cowslip as an essential food plant. 

If you do get to experience the joy of spotting cowslips in bloom this Easter, please remember not to pick them. Stick to paths in woodlands, meadows and nature reserves to avoid accidental trampling. These, and other native wildflowers, are important food for pollinators and must be left in their habitats to provide nectar and later set seed.