Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Joys of the Cowslip

Cowslip, Primula veris
What a joy to behold the Cowslip! Its long stalk seems almost too long, a bare stick of a thing rising from a rosette of verdant leaves to support a splash of yellow-orange flowers. These can number up to 30 on some plants (1), and such a number on such a single stalk would look ridiculous were it for their delicate hue and wonderful bell shape.
With its preference for unimproved grassland, Cowslips (Primula veris) have seen a decline in number throughout Europe in the last number of years. This decline can be attributed to changes in land-use practices (2), such as:
  • the loss of traditional hay-meadow management
  • the loss of grazing
  • an increase in ploughing
  • ongoing destruction and nutrient enrichment of permanent grassland.
And while this decline is a pity from our, aesthetic point of view, it is a potential disastrous development for P. veris. Spillmann et al. have shown that reproduction in small populations of P. veris is strongly reduced, with problems such as in breeding depression being observed in those small populations that do reproduce (3). In the short term, reduced reproduction poses a risk of extinction to small populations of P. veris. Small populations will also be less likely to respond to environmental changes, which increases their long term risk of extinction.
Cowslip (Primula veris) flowers
 It is not all bad news however, as the decline in number of P. veris in the UK has been less than that of other countries. This is due to the incorporation of its seeds in wildflower seed-mixtures that are sown on new or upgraded road and motorway verges, embankments and urban conservation areas (2). Such policies could be used by other countries, Ireland included, to maintain this magnificent flower for the future.

  1. Sterry, 2004. Collins Complete Guide to Irish Wildlife p. 226
  2. Brys  and Jacquemyn, 2009. Journal of Ecology 97 pp. 581-600
  3. Spillmann et al., 2000. Journal of Ecology 88 pp. 17-30


  1. What a beautiful species! Here in southern Brazil we have many problems similar to that with our native species, but mainly associated with the use of land for cattle. I hope we'll have the chance to save them and maintain our ecosystems safe and beautiful as they are.

  2. Thanks for the comment, it certainly is a beautiful flower. As a boy, I remember it being very plentiful throughout the countryside, but the building boom in Ireland in the last 15 years has reduced numbers quite an amount.