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A Victorian custom revived

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The common cowslip, Primula veris, was at one time widespread in the countryside, particularly on well drained grasslands. A recent note in The Times informed us that the cowslip is returning to the countryside.

A seed producer, based in the West Country, is harvesting seed from several acres of the plant and will sell it to farmers. The seed merchant states that the cowslip is “a sweet-smelling plant, which cattle and sheep love to eat”.

Cowslips have a long history of medicinal use, and numerous websites offer preparations of cowslip for a wide variety of conditions. Culpeper, in his ‘Complete Herbal’, describes how “an ointment being made with [the flowers] takes away spots and wrinkles of the skin, sunburning and freckles and adds beauty exceedingly”.

Merlin cannot vouch for the effectiveness of Culpeper’s preparation, but certainly cowslips were much in evidence recently at Merlin’s local parish church, where the first Sunday in May is celebrated as Cowslip Sunday.

The origins of this custom go back to the mid-19th century, when the local village was surrounded by cowslips. On the first Sunday of May, people from the nearby city, some six miles away, would visit the village to see the cowslips and to buy “cowslip balls” from the local children. These were small balls of dried grass decorated with cowslip flowers. The custom fell into disuse at about the time of the 1914–18 war, but was revived in the 1960s.

On Cowslip Sunday, the church is decorated with cowslips (which are now grown by members of the congregation in their gardens rather than being picked from the wild). The children play a major part in the morning service, during which we walk in procession to the nearby stream, known locally as the Dumble, which is blessed by the rector.

Some might think that blessing the waters of a stream is somewhat passé in these cynical times. However, our Dumble is literally life-giving, as it provides drainage for the upland farms and is a source of irrigation for those further down the valley.

A group of local people is anxious that cowslips should grow once more in nearby pastures and on roadside verges, so perhaps Cowslip Sunday may one day be celebrated as in Victorian times.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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