Cowslips: A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Nature is entertaining us with wonderful displays of wild flowers this spring – some of the best we have seen in recent years. I particularly love to see Cowslips which always remind me of a wonderful play William Shakespeare wrote, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  and, in particular, that exquisite  scene in the wood near Athens when Puck greets a fairy with the words:

How now spirit!  Whither wander you?

And the  fairy’s reply is pure magic:

Over hill, over dale
Thorough bush, thorough briar
Over park, over pale
Thorough flood, thorough fire
I do wander everywhere
Swifter than the moon’s sphere
And I serve the Fairy Queen
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslip tall her pensioners be

In their gold coats, spots you see,

Those be rubies, fairy’s favours
In those freckles live their saviours
I must go seek dewdrops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

Shakespeare loved looking at the orange/red spots at the base of a cowslip’s petals. He describes them (the ‘saviours’) as the source of the flower’s feint scent.

The cowslip really caught the bard’s imagination and he in turn completely captures ours. And next time you see some cowslips, look at the orange spots, the ‘rubies, fairy’s favours’ inside.

One of the best known spring flowers, cowslips not only adorn pastures and banks but they are a nostalgic symbol of the once flower-rich pastures of rural England which Shakespeare describes. The ‘freckled cowslip’ also appears in Shakespeare’s Henry V as a sign of a well-managed pasture and in The Tempest:  “Where the bee sucks, there suck I; In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”
 The Tempest, act 5, scene 1

The cup-shaped flowers grow in nodding clusters on tall stalks. The leaves are oval with relatively wrinkled edges similar to the Primrose, but they narrow abruptly into the stalk. They can be seen in open woodlands, grassy banks, meadows, pastures and roadsides and are best seen in April and May.

If you’d like to plant some in your own garden, here’s a link to where to buy them.