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Slips that define springtime

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: November 08, 2012

  • BEAUTIFUL: The stunning beauty of a cowslip in close-up.

  • GROUP: Oxlips growing in the woods, all looking in one direction. Pictures: Emorsgate Seeds and Kevock Garden Plants.

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DAISYWORT, Plumrocks, Petty Mulleins, Key of Heaven, Herb Peter, Cuy Lippe, Crewel and Paigle.

Yes, in case you were wondering, this is still a gardening page, not a study of characters from the Land of Make Believe or a story snippet from the pages of Dickens or Kipling.

The first seven are folk names for the cowslip, the eighth for its close relative the oxlip.

This pair, along with the common primrose that needs no introduction, are the definitive delights of the springtime countryside.

They could, and should, be part of our domestic colour scheme, not so much in peaty borders, more a case of popping them into a sunny wild corner laced with grit and lime.

Both the cowslip and oxlip belong to the massive primula family and are guaranteed to provoke an "Ooh" or an "Aah" if spotted growing and naturalising in the wild.

Neither are particularly common – especially in the West Country – and the oxlip is a positive rarity, thriving only in the eastern counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. Indeed, ten years ago the oxlip's endearing qualities were laid in perpetuity when it was voted Suffolk's county flower following a poll by the conservation charity Plantlife.

Putting the cowslip – primula veris – under the microscope first, it gets its favoured handle from the Old English cowsh . . . yes, you've got it in one . . . because the plant was often found growing among dollops of dung in cattle pastures. Its species name veris means, aptly, "of spring".

Deep yellow fragrant flowers emerge in April and May and arrive in clusters of between ten and 30 on a single stem.

Hybridists have been busy, creating named varieties in ochre, orange and even red, but somehow the natural yellows seem the most desirable.

Like the cowslip, the oxlip – primula elatior – is a UK native, but there are subtle differences. The oxlip's blooms are slightly larger, paler yellow, scentless and tend to cling to one side of the stems which are themselves marginally taller at 10 inches.

It's important to note that both species enjoy life in non-acidic soil and in full sun or dappled shade, though oxlips are more tolerant of a woodland environment as are, of course, our cherished primroses.

Both provide a valuable food source for bees and are the larval host plant for the Duke of Burgundy butterfly. A delicate wine made from cowslips was once reputed to be a cure for insomnia, while a cowslip ointment apparently purged spots and wrinkles.

Despite being so scarce in Britain, oxlips abound far and wide in calcium-rich meadows and woods across Europe, from Denmark to northern Norway and eastwards into Sweden and parts of Russia.

To grow these rustic gems presents a triple choice. You can buy mature plants in pots from garden centres for the safest option, dig a hole and place the plant alone or plant-with-pot inside and protect from slugs with a handful of grit. You can order multiple cells of plug plants which should, with care, blossom into maturity in time for the following spring after being potted on and put out to graze.

And, for the real challenge, scatter the seed, sit back and wait . . . wait . . . wait. It's best to sow in trays in autumn, keeping them sheltered outside so that winter chills can break the seeds' dormancy, and then move under glass to aid germination. But under no circumstances should seeds be kept in greenhouse heat as they will rebel, shrivel and expire.

Once outside, apply a sprinkling of lime and grit around the plants and feed sparingly. Foliage will probably disappear in late summer so use markers to tell you where they are to avoid unwittingly uprooting them when you plant spring bulbs or a perennial or two.

Check out garden centres for fully-grown plants, or Kevock Garden Plants on 0131 4540660 or www.kevock garden.co.uk. Visit www.un wins.co.uk for plug plants or contact Emorsgate Seeds on 01553 829028 or online at www.wildseeds.co.uk for seeds of both species and many other wild flowers. Seeds can be slow but hugely rewarding.

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