An attractive and low maintenance plant, cowslip is used for sinus inflammation (sinusitis), cough, common cold, bronchitis, asthma, insomnia and nerve pain.


Primulaceae (primula family)


Cowslip primrose, key flower, key of heaven, palsywort, fairy cups, herb peter, plumrock, peggle


Flowers and roots


Cowslip is native to Europe and most of temperate Asia. It is rarely found in the Mediterranean area. It grows wild in meadows, pastures, fields and woods favoring chalky soils.


Cowslip, Primula veris, is a downy herbaceous perennial can easily be confused with the closely related and much rarer oxlip (Primula elatior). They have a similar appearance and habitat. To tell them apart, look at the corolla. Corolla is the name of all the petals of a flower. Both cowslip and oxslip have a corolla shaped like a tube. Oxslip has a corolla tube without folds, fewer and larger, pale yellow flowers. Cowslip has a corolla tube with folds and several yellow flowers marked with orange dots. Both can be used the same way in folk medicine as they have similar medicinal properties.

Plant type: Perennial.
Height: 30 to 40 cm (12 to 15 inches).
Width: 40 cm (15 inches).
Flowers: Deep yellow with five petals and one orange dot per petal. It appears in groups of up to thirty in half umbels.
Leaves: Arranged in a low growing rosette, ovate to oblong in shape with a slightly indented margin, rough to the touch, bright green.
Stems: Downy, 10-30 cm (4-12 inches) long.
Root: Short and rhizomatous with several rootlets.
Blooms: April to May.


Cowslip is a partial shade and chalky soil lover. It may be planted in full sun in cool summer areas.

Hardiness: Zone 5-9.
Propagation: Seed and rhizome division. Cowslip reseeds readily
Germination: Sow in late summer or fall. Germination will take place in the following spring. Seed need to be exposed to frost in order to germinate (cold stratification).
Spacing: 40 cm (15 inches).
Soil: It prefers chalk but also grows in clay, loam and sandy-loam.
Soil Drainage: Moist but well-drained.
pH: Acid, alkaline, neutral.
Exposure: Partial shade to full shade. Full sun only in cool summer areas.
Water needs: Average. Don’t allow it to dry out.
Maintenance: Low.
Garden Design: Add cowslip to a gravel or rock garden, plant it in cottage style beds and borders, as edging, in containers, in between boulders.
Season of interest: Mid spring.
Companion planting: Spring bulbs, such as grape hyacinth (muscari), hyacinth and, daffodils, as well as green-veined orchid and blue pulmonaria.


The roots are harvested in the third year in Fall. The flower blooms from April to May and can be harvested with and without the calyx. Since the calyx contains lots of saponin, it makes more sense to harvest the flowers with it.


Place the flowers on a flat surface away from direct sunlight in a well ventilated room. The herb is ready for storage when it feels papery to the touch. Be careful when powdering the roots as the dust particles are strongly sternutative (cause sneezing).


Flower: 2% saponins present mainly in the calyx, 3% flavonoids in the other parts of the flower, carotenoids, traces of essential oil, rosmarinic acid, enzymes, sugar alcohols.

Root: 5-10% saponin glycosides, 0.25% volatile oil


Expectorant, secretolytic, nervine, heart tonic, sternutative (powdered root)


Flowers: Slightly sweet
Roots: Bitter and harsh


Flowers: Similar to honey, faint
Roots: Faint and characteristic


The saponins present in the roots are responsible for the expectorant effects of cowslip. There are saponins in the flowers and their calyx as well, but to a lesser extent.

The flowers and the root are used for swollen nose and throat, sinus inflammation, chronic bronchitis, persistent unproductive coughs (coughs without expectoration), whooping cough, asthma, insomnia, nerve pain (neuralgia), headache and gout. It is also used to increase urine production (diuretic), to reduce muscle spasms and to strengthen the heart.

Together with European black elder flower, verbena, sorrel and gentian root, cowslip is great for swollen and painful sinuses (sinusitis).

Cowslip oils is good for pain, swelling and bruises. Its expectorant qualities make it also good for chronic bronchitis and persistent coughs.

Compresses applied to the head my soothe migraines. Lotions and ointments are good for skin blemishes such as spots, wrinkles and blotches.

Used internally for:

  • Sore throats
  • Sinus inflammation
  • Coughs
  • Asthma
  • Neuralgia (nerve pain)
  • Headache
  • Gout
  • Muscle spasms
  • Nervous stomach spasms
  • Chronic bronchitis

Used externally for:

  • Swelling
  • Bruises
  • Migraines
  • Skin blemishes
Recommended daily dosage

Per Commission E: Flowers: 2-4 g dried cowslip flower. Roots: 0.5 g dried root

Tincture: 1.5-3 g root tincture times per day or 2.5 to 7.5 g flower tincture per day both per Commission E).
Tea: 2 teaspoons of per cup of boiling water. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes. Take a cup three times per day.
Decoction: 1 teaspoon of root per cup of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Drink 3 cups per day.

  • Infusion (tea) for flowers
  • Decoction for roots
  • Infused oil
  • Compress
  • Tincture

Young cowslip leaves are a nice addition to salads and were once often added to country salads. The flowers can be used to decorate salads. Try them with fresh with cream. Or candy them to decorate a cake. Infuse them into a refreshing tea. You can also ferment them into cowslip wine for restlessness and insomnia.


Because it contains saponin, cowslip can irritate the stomach lining. Some people may be allergic to plants in the primrose family. The poison primin, in the trichome (“hair”) is the culprit. It can create a burning sensation known as primula dermatitis.


People allergic to plants in the primrose family should avoid taking cowslip.


Hoffmann, D. 2003. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester: Healing Arts Press
Hoffmann, D. 1990. The New Holistic Herbal. 3rd ed. Shaftesbury: Element Books Limited
Phillips, R. Foy, N. 1990. Herbs. London: Pan Books
Wichtl M. 2004. Herbal drugs and phytopharmaceuticals – A handbook for practice on a scientific basis. 3rd ed. Stuttgart: medpharm Scientific Publishers

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