This pretty yellow flower, gathered since the Middle Ages when “bringing in the May,” was known in Middle English by various names, including primerose, primerole, and cowslyppe. Photograph by Carly Still
Primula veris, literally the “first little one of spring,” was known in Middle English as prymerole and as prymerose, or “the first rose.” It was also known as cowslip, a name thought to be derived from “cow slop” or dung, perhaps because it grew in meadows and pastures where cattle grazed. The names prymerole and prymerose came from the Latin through Old French, and were shared with the cowslip’s relative, the common primrose (Primula vulgaris). As Geoffrey Grigson notes in his fascinating compendium of plant lore, The Englishman’s Flora, it can be very difficult to distinguish which of the two species is meant in early sources. Renaissance plantsmen like William Turner, John Gerard, and John Parkinson tried to clarify the confusion caused by the shared common names; as late as the eighteenth century, the great Swedish naturalist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus considered the cowslip, the common primrose, and the oxlip (Primula elatior; see image) to be forms of the same species.