Variations on a Theme: Primrose, Cowslip or Oxlip?

Comparison between primroses and cowslips
Primroses (centre) and cowslips (top right)

The third in my series of easily confused plants features some of the UK’s favourite spring wild flowers with a long heritage of lore.

While our native species of primula are well-loved, they are not as familiar and useful as they once were. Farmers are too busy to rub primroses on their cows’ udders on May Day to encourage milk. Most people who grow primroses near their doorway have forgotten the idea that they encourage faeries to bless the household. People no longer make tisty tosties from cowslip flower heads tied into balls, stems inwards, and hang them from sticks in their dozens to tell fortunes or wave in celebration. Few people have recently tasted cowslip wine. Cowslips are not common enough, and like all UK wild flowers, they are now protected.

But these wild flowers have such a dainty, delicate look, no matter how vigorously they grow, that they are rarely dismissed as weeds.

While primroses, cowslips and oxlips are not difficult to tell apart, they are often mistaken for each other. The country name for any wild primula, paigle, neatly avoided the problem.

Their leaves are similar: green, crinkled, and veined; roughly oval, tapering towards the bottom; and produced in loose rosettes close to the ground. As a result, the easiest way to tell wild primulas apart is to wait until they flower. This quick guide will narrow down the options:

  • Wide open flowers suggest a primrose while narrower, bell- or trumpet-shaped, pendant flowers indicate a cowslip or oxlip.
  • All three wild species of primula in the UK are commonly yellow. A pale, buttery yellow marks out a primrose or an oxlip while a golden yellow suggests a cowslip.
  • If the flowers are held singly, the flower is a primrose or its hybrid. If flowers are held in clusters dangling on short stems from a central point at the top of one sturdy stem, you’re looking at a cowslip or oxlip or their hybrids.

Here’s a little extra detail on each:

Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) flowering among fallen leaves
Wild primrose (Primula vulgaris)

Each slender, hairy stem has only one flower, arching from ground level above and among the leaves. The plant forms a mound covered with a scattering of flowers that stay fairly close to the ground at around 10-15cm high. Flowers open wide hiding their calyxes (pale green leaf-like structures) behind them. Each petal is notched, giving it a heart shape.

Flowers may be quite sparse or liberally produced on well-established clumps. Primroses are commonly pale, greenish yellow with brighter yellow throats. You can also find pinkish forms or almost white ones growing wild. Synonyms include Primula vernalis.

Cowslip (Primula veris)
Cowslips (Primula veris)
Cowslips (Primula veris)

Sweetly scented flowers hang in clusters from sturdy stalks (known as scapes) held above the leaves at around 20-25cm high. Each scape is topped with between ten and thirty nodding flowers.

Cowslips are a richer, brighter shade of yellow with orange markings at the centre. The flowers are smaller than the primrose and have an elongated bell shape. Notched petals give the flower a wavy outline. The pale green calyx is very visible, wrapped loosely around the tubular end of the flower, in a marked colour contrast.

Pink primroses and orange-red cowslips
Pink primroses and orange-red cowslips

More rarely cowslips produce flowers in a range of warm, sunset colours, from orange to red. Seed strains of selected plants are available.

The cowslip’s popularity has given rise to a long list of folk names, including herb Peter, St Peter’s wort, bunch of keys, key of heaven, Mary’s tears, freckled face, fairy cups, golden drops, long legs and milk maidens.

Oxlip (Primula elatior)

Pale yellow, bell-shaped flowers are held in clusters on tall scapes up to 30 cm high. Flowers droop elegantly on one side only of the scape. Sadly oxlips are classed as near threatened and are rarely found growing wild in the UK other than in parts of South East England. Click here to see a picture on Wikipedia Commons.

Other options

Primulas are very attractive to pollinators and hybrids naturally occur whenever species grow close to each other in the wild.

False Oxlip (Primula vulgaris x veris)
False oxlip growing wild on the edge of Darwen moor
False oxlip growing wild on the edge of Darwen moor

If you believe you’ve found an oxlip growing wild in North West England, it’s more likely that you’re looking at a false oxlip – a hybrid that looks similar to the rare species Primula oxlip.

Signs of this are sturdy, upright plants with hybrid vigour and flowers that grow around the stem rather than just on one side. The flowers are variable, but tend to be more open, like a small primrose flower.

Other Primula Hybrids
Primula garden hybrids of different colours and forms
Garden hybrids of different colours and forms

While gardeners can choose from a fascinating array of selected forms, including double golden-yellow cowslips and hose-in-hose forms where a second flower grows neatly out of the first, some of these fancies are infertile and others will give rise to variable offspring.

Primula Jack-in-the-green yellow form
Primula Jack-in-the-green

One such curiosity is Primula Jack-in-the-green. Demure flowers lie flat against a collar of enlarged, leafy sepals. I’m showing a yellow flower but several colours are available.

For naturalising, stick to the species: Primula vulgaris, Primula veris or Primula elatior. All of these will form spreading colonies if you can provide the right conditions.

41 Replies to “Variations on a Theme: Primrose, Cowslip or Oxlip?”

  1. Thanks to this post, I realise that, though I’ve heard of them, I’m very vague about oxslips. However, I’m happy to report that wild primrose and cowslips are very common hereabouts, and that the cool conditions which we’re all moaning about have resulted in a really extended season for them.

    1. I used to think that oxlips were a cross between primroses and cowslips, and that was the expert’s opinion, long ago. If you can find primroses and cowslips growing together you should also see hybrids – false oxlips – that are midway between the two.

      I looked for wild cowslips and oxlips last year during the first lockdown without much success and finally found a big patch of cowslips just a little bit back from the main road. No oxlips though, only the false ones.

  2. What a delightful post about a flower I knew next to nothing about. However, there were some sad lines, with this one, perhaps, being the saddest: “Most people who grow primroses near their doorway have forgotten the idea that they encourage faeries to bless the household.” Oh, my! This might have to somehow make it into one of my Elferterre/Portland stories.

  3. I am confused and fascinated all at once. Your post is very clear but my experience is limited; I knew nothing of these flowers, except — maybe? — a reference in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” to cowslips? You can be sure I’m going to read up on tisty tosties! (That looks suspiciously like tussie-mussies.) Thank you once again for my continuing education.

    1. Also there’s the warning of the allure of the ‘primrose path of dalliance’ in Hamlet. Shakespeare clearly loved flowers.

      1. A lovely reference. I have never been able to get through Hamlet, though I’ve started it multiple times. I have read Lear a couple times but can no longer read that. Both are too deeply depressing. But, yes, Shakespeare knew flowers both in image and sound. What a wonder.

        1. I have quite a nice copy of Petrarch’s sonnets I once bought ‘for when I have time’. After about a decade I settled down to read them but gave them up as deeply depressing. I don’t know if I would feel any differently if I had another try.

          1. Petrarch! Now there’s a name that isn’t heard much. I do not know about his sonnets, but I am fairly sure that anything that was depressing in the past would be more so these days.

  4. What a delightful post! Enjoyed the photos and re-discovering these beauties and their virtues. I’ve got to have some primroses at least in a pot by the door! Fairies eh? 🙂🕊

  5. What a lovely informative post. Cowslips and primroses are fairly common here, primroses in the main, but have I seen Oxlips? Probably not. I prefer the common varieties on the whole, but the reddish-orange cowslips are rather appealing. The folk tales and the folk names are enchanting!

  6. Lovely post thank you. I have them in my garden and always get the names mixed up. Cows are taller is how I now remember! Thank you.

  7. Flowers can have such delightful names. Primrose is a word that brings images of sweet flowers that behave themselves. And I’m not going to write what is going through my mind when I think of cowslips and oxlips. Especially cowslips could be heard as cow’s lips or cow slips.

  8. Thanks for outlining the differences between the species, Susan. And hybrids are an ID challenge beyond that. I have all three in my yard, plus P. sieboldii and P. bulleyana … every year have to refresh my memory as to which is which!

    1. Perhaps more plants should go down the hellebore ID route – Helleborus x hybridus always makes me smile. Primulas are such useful (and varied) plants, but you need a decent sized garden. P. bulleyana is a favourite, especially if it is around water.

  9. Has it been a good year for cowslips in your area? They’ve been abundant in Surrey this spring, despite how dry and frosty April was.

Comments are closed.