Primroses, Cowslips and Oxlips

These spring flowers all belong to the Primula family and they appear frequently in Shakespeare's works.

Primrose (Primula vulgaris) 


Primroses for a Shakespeare Garden

“And In the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie.”

- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act I, Scene I

“I’ll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack
The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose "

- Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene II

“ … pale primroses
That die unmarried"

- The Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene IV

“ … while like a puff’d and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads.”

- Hamlet, Act I, Scene III

“ … go the primrose way to everlasting bonfire.”

- Macbeth, Act II, Scene III

The Primrose is referred to by Chaucer as the primerole, a name derived from the French primaverole which in turn was derived from the Latin flor di prima vera, meaning the first flower of Spring. Although the Primrose could represent new life and beauty, like other Spring flowers that bloomed early it was also symbolic of early death. Shakespeare also seems to suggest that the Primrose represents some kind of licentiousness, as seen in passages from Hamlet and Macbeth.

Type: Perennial

Height: Up to 4 inches

When to Plant: Autumn

Flowers: March and April


Cowslip (Primula veris)

Cowslips for a Shakespeare Garden

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie”

- The Tempest, Act V, Scene I

“The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dew drops here
And hang a pearl in every Cowslips ear.”

  - A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene I

In Shakespeare’s day Cowslips were associated with magic and with fairies, in some places they were known as Fairy Cups.  The character Ariel in The Tempest happens to be “an airy spirit.” Cowslips were originally a wildflower found in the open meadows and pastures, unfortunately they are now rarely seen in the wild. Their name refers to the cattle who would graze upon them when left out to pasture.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream they are compared to the Gentlemen Pensioners of Queen Elizabeth’s court, a guard of fifty of the handsomest men from the noblest families, who would accompany the Queen during her royal engagements. The Gentlemen Pensioners were known for their fine and elaborate dress that was embroidered in gold and attached with jewels. The “rubies, fairy favours”, means favours from the Queen. The men were also known to wear pearls in their ear, hence the phrase to “hang a pearl in every Cowslips ear.”

Type: Perennial

Height: 7 to 12 inches

When to Plant: Autumn

Flowers: March to May


Oxlips (Primula elatior)

Oxlips for a Shakespeare Garden


“Bold oxlips”

- The Winter's Tale, Act IV, Scene IV

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows.”

- A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene I

Oxlips are known for being a cross between the Primrose and the Cowslip.

Type: Perennial

Height: Up to 12 inches

When to Plant: Autumn

Flowers: April to May