How to Plant & Grow Common Cowslip (Primula veris)

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Common Cowslip Growing, Planting, Facts & Care (Primula veris)

how to plant common cowslip primula veris
Common cowslip produces yellow, bell-shaped flowers from April through May. Photo by CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as cowslip primrose, or simply cowslip, Primula veris is a beautiful flowering perennial in the primrose family (Primulaceae). Often appreciated as a sign of spring, cowslip primrose has frequently been mentioned in English literature. Shakespeare wrote about this species in both The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Common cowslip produces attractive clusters of yellow, bell-shaped flowers in April and May.

Common cowslip is native to Europe and Western Asia but has also become naturalized in North America as a popular garden plant. This species is easy to grow and is often used for edging in garden beds. It can also be grown near the edge of a pond or creek but does best in well-draining, as opposed to saturated, soil.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Common Cowslip

duke of burgundy butterfly common cowslip
Common cowslip provides a critical food source and site for larval development for the threatened Duke of Burgundy butterfly, found only in portions of the UK. Photo by Charlie Jackson, CC BY 2.0

Common cowslip’s bold yellow flowers attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The Duke of Burgundy butterfly, a rare species that is starting to make a comeback thanks to concentrated conservation efforts, depends on common cowslip as a larval host plant and valuable food source. Deer and rabbits are not fond of this plant.

Interestingly, common cowslip is often described as smelling quite reminiscent of apricots, and this scent combined with bright coloration help to draw in pollinators. In fact, this scent or the lack thereof is a way to distinguish common cowslip from a similar species, oxlip (Primula elatior).

This species, once extremely widespread, experienced a population decline in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s due to a loss of native habitat. Happily, common cowslip is rebounding, and is even frequently included in many wildflower seed mixes. An iconic British plant, common cowslip has received the British Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

Common cowslip has been used as a sacred or medicinal plant at many times in history, including by Celtic druids, and by Florentines in the Middle Ages. It traditionally was used to help with coughs, insomnia, and arthritis. Currently, some still use the large basal leaves at the base of the plant in salads.

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Common Cowslip Fact Sheet:
Herbaceous Perennial
USDA 4 – 9
Partial shade
Yellow (rarely orange or red)
April – May (Spring)
Height 20-25 cm (8-10 in)
seeds: just under surface; mature plant: 4-6 inches
pH 5.0 – 7.0

Common Cowslip Growth, Hardiness & Climate

common cowslip primula veris growth rate and hardiness
Common cowslip grows well in hardiness zones 4-9, reaching an average height of 8 to 10 inches. Photo by Krzysztof Golik, CC BY-SA 4.0

Common cowslip is easy to grow when provided with the proper conditions, including partial shade and medium-moisture, well-draining soil. This plant is fairly adaptable and is a great option for edging on borders of gardens, mixed in with other plants that provide partial shade, as well as close to pond edges. Common cowslip is hardy in zones 4-9. This plant is a perennial, and is able to survive cold winters.

This plant can grow from around eight to ten inches tall, and spreads by seed. It also can be propagated by division. Common cowslip produces clusters of yellow blooms that appear in April and May.

How to Plant Common Cowslip

how to grow common cowslip from seed
If growing from seed, plant common cowslip in the autumn and seeds will sprout in late winter/early spring. Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0

Common cowslip seeds are dependent on cold-stratification in order to grow, meaning that they require a period of cold weather in order to emerge from dormancy. Gently press seeds just under the surface of the soil in autumn. There is no need to water the seeds yet, as they will not germinate until spring arrives. However, be sure to keep the soil moist once your seeds sprout.

If growing common cowslip from an already established plant, simply bury the roots up to the crown of the stem in rich soil.

How to Care For Common Cowslip

how to care for common cowslip plant
Not a true marginal plant, common cowslip can be planted near water but should not be placed directly in water or saturated soil. © Copyright Anne Burgess and licensed for reuse under

Common cowslip is fairly low-maintenance, and is an easy plant to care for. This plant does best in moist, rich soil. It is important that common cowslip is grown in well-draining soil, so although it can do well near a pond, be sure to not plant it so close that the soil is saturated at all times.

Common cowslip will thrive in partial shade, but also can be found in sunnier as well as more shaded areas. This plant is a perennial, so expect to see it for several years in your garden or near your pond if you decide to grow it.

How to Winter Common Cowslip

Common cowslip is native to northern areas with cold winters, and as a result is able to survive frost and snow. In fact, it is important that this plant is grown in areas with cold winters because its seeds rely on cold stratification to essentially scratch the seeds and promote sprouting in the spring. There is no need for any special treatment to prepare common cowslip for winter when grown in its native hardiness zones.

Is Common Cowslip Toxic, Poisonous or Invasive?

Common Cowslip is native to Europe and Western Asia and is therefore technically invasive outside of this range. However, it is not an aggressive plant, and is not known to overtake areas or crowd out native species. It is quite common in North America even though this is not its native range. Do try to use plants native to your home region in your garden. If you are set on having common cowslip but live outside of its range, it is a good idea to plant it in baskets or pots rather than directly into the ground to help prevent it from spreading into the natural environment.

Common cowslip is not thought to be toxic unless consumed in excessive quantities. This plant is presumed safe for use around fish ponds, although it will likely be growing far enough from the water’s edge that your fish will not come in contact with it.

Is Common Cowslip Edible? Will Fish Eat it?

Common cowslip is edible and has been eaten by people throughout history. The flowers and leaves are most commonly eaten in salads. In addition, it can be used for tea, vinegar, and in soups. Common cowslip also has been traditionally used in England to make cowslip wine. 

Your fish are unlikely to show much interest, or even be able to access this plant, but shouldn’t experience negative affects if they do end up trying a taste.

Where to Buy Common Cowslip & Seeds? (UK & US)

Common cowslip seeds and mature plants are readily available in nurseries or online outlets that sell to the plant’s native ranges, as well as locations such as North America where the plant has become popularized. Elsewhere, you’ll likely have to order it online or ask your local nursery to make a special order.

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