Cowslips and Cow’s-lips

This morning I went down to the swamp bordering Hibbards Creek, which flows under Fairview Road a few miles from home, to look for gold and found some – Marsh Marigolds, the golden symbol of spring. This member of the Crowfoot or Buttercup family favors the shallow margins of ponds, brooks and streams and is one of the few wild plants that can become rooted in streambeds and come to full flower while the stream rushes merrily around it.

Years ago when we lived in Baileys Harbor and would drive south to the big cities, we’d drive along Highway 57 which took us over Logan’s Creek, just south of Mr. G’s restaurant. Along the swiftly flowing creek grew thousands of Cowslips or Marsh Marigolds hugging the marshy borders. Gradually since then, large thickets of willows have crowded out the beautiful golden flowers.

The name Marigold refers to its use in medieval churches as a tribute to the Virgin Mary; it often carried names such as Mary Gold, water bubbles, polly blobs, May blobs, and horse blobs. The word “blob” was frequently used in its name years ago in that one of the flower buds look somewhat like a blister, a usually small amount of something thick and wet that does not have a regular shape…a blob.

What appear as petals to us are actually the plant’s sepals, usually five in number but as many as nine. Like buttercups, the Marsh Marigold’s sepals are quite shiny. Using one of your fingernails, the yellow can easily be scraped away from both sides of a sepal leaving it somewhat transparent. Insects see much differently than we do. The flashy gold sepals appear to them as purple. However, to them, the center of the blossom is seen as black thereby serving nicely as a target or nectar guide for the insects to follow to the sweetness.

As a small boy I was introduced by my mother to these bright yellow spring flowers adorning the swampy section of my Uncle Walter Barr’s woods and have known them as Cowslips. Naturally it was easy to associate their habitat with a place where Uncle Walt’s “cows would slip” and consequently I never further questioned the derivation of this interesting plant’s name.

The accurate interpretation of the word cowslip was made clear to me years ago when I began working at the Ridges Sanctuary. One of my favorite early summer flowers there was the Arctic Primrose, very rare in Door County, so it was quite natural that I borrowed from the library a book dealing with primroses. Wild primroses abound in various parts of Europe, including England. One, a white-blossomed species, was called “Ox-lips,” while another, a yellow-flowered variety, was referred to as “Cow’s-lips.” My English friend and excellent botanist for years at Kew Gardens, told me that today English people also simply call them Cowslips as we do.

It so happened that early European settlers in eastern North America, homesick for their favorite animals, birds and especially flowers, rejoiced when their first spring arrived and with it the swamps filled with what looked like their beloved Cow’s-lips – and the name has stuck to this very day. Gradually through the years the pronunciation, as so often occurs in our country, degenerated and changed from Cow’s-lips to Cowslips. I still prefer the name of Cowslips to Marsh Marigolds. We often think of Cowslips growing either in marshes or in swamps, the difference being that swamps have trees growing there, while marshes most often don’t.

The scientific name of the Cowslip is Caltha palustris. The word “caltha” refers to a cup or chalice, while “palustris” refers to marshy or swampy. Palustris most often is used to describe the habitat in which specific plants grows. We often refer to the Cowslips as Swamp Cups because of where many grow and also alluding to the lovely cup-shape of the upturned golden sepals.

Now their round or kidney-shaped foliage, looking wet and shiny, are peaking out of the water, their margins appearing as though a seamstress had carefully trimmed them with pinking shears. Gradually the striking chrome-yellow blossoms are emerging. Tiny nectar glands on the sides of each pistil will entice many bee-like insects, especially the brilliant Syrphid Flies, also referred to as Hover Flies, into moving around the flowers, brushing against the stigmas and cross-fertilizing these handsome wildflowers.

To most people, the flowers have little to no scent. Thoreau said the flower “has no scent but speaks wholly to the eyes.” Put on your knee boots and venture into their wet environment to enjoy the golden garden along with some of its associates, including Skunk Cabbage, now in leaf only. Once the Cowslip flowers fade and fall, the leaves begin to enlarge and may approach those of Skunk Cabbages in size. An easy way to tell them apart is by their margins. Those of the Cowslips are toothed while the leaf margins of the Skunk Cabbage are smooth.

There are some Euell Gibbons-type people who eat many different wild plants and make the claim that the small leaves of the Marsh Marigold, when the blossoms are in full bloom, can be gathered, boiled in several changes of water and then eaten, their flavor resembling that of spinach. Others disagree vehemently insisting that the leaves be left to grow in the swamps! I wholeheartedly agree. Incidentally, Gibbons in his fine book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, does not list Marsh Marigolds as being edible!

Caltha possesses very acrid properties that most often lead cattle and most wild animals, excepting moose, to avoid it. There are bound to be some cases where cattle and horses are poisoned by eating the fresh tops of the plants. Fortunately allowing dairy cattle to graze in wet woods is pretty much a thing of the past. The toxic property of the plant is due to its alkaloids and glucosides.

Depending upon where they are growing, their time of blossoming can range from late April into early June. Apparently their flowering period is closely correlated with the water and soil temperature in which they grow. What are usually looked down upon as dank, smelly, mosquito-infested environments, the swamps and marshes are gradually coming alive with golden beauty. Go to where the “cows slip” and enjoy one of spring’s most dazzling floral spectacles.