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I had a hard time understanding what Aunt Bett was going to do with cowslips the first time we climbed the mountain to gather them. I thought we were going to a pasture where cows grazed in the summer, and then I wondered what on earth cows would do without their lips. It was all a mystery to me.
And wild-scattered cowslips bedeck the green dale.....from "The Chevalier's Lament" by Robert Burns
There came a beautiful spring morning in the mountains of southeast Kentucky when Aunt Bett said: "Let's go gather up some cows' lips just so we'll have 'em if somthin' happens." I had been up with the rising sun as was my habit in those early days. I was always afraid the day would start without me and I might miss something. Most of the time I would get dressed, check the dyed tattoo of the day, run damp fingers through my wild white hair to make sure there were no bugs or branches from the day before, grab a bite to eat, and run outside to make sure my mountains were still there. I rarely came back inside if the day was nice and if I had no specific chores to do, so I was ready to go with Aunt Bett to wherever she wanted to lead me.
Sometimes my uncle who lived across the holler from my family had a herd of cows that he led up the mountain to a flat grazing spot, and I thought maybe we were going there. Old Pied our milk cow was safely tucked away in the barn waiting to be milked, so I knew we weren't looking for her. But Aunt Bett and I didn't start out across the holler, we went on down the road a piece and began to climb the mountain across from her house.
"What will we do with cows' lips, Aunt Bett, and will it hurt? How many do we need and how far do we have to go? Will it hurt the cows?" A veritable chatterbox I was, but Aunt Bett, always patient only said: "We'll go up yonder a ways till we find the spot where they are, and they won't hurt a thing. We'll need a pretty good sackful." That was it for the cows' lips conversation, and we kept right on climbing.
Pretty soon we climbed to a pretty fair clearing and on the edge of it were some small low growing yellow flowers. A few were more orangish, but most were yellow. Aunt Bett sat down on a log, and I looked around for the cows. I couldn't find a one. Now about this time on one of our trips, Aunt Bett brought out the pint jars of ice cold well water and her homemade biscuits and jelly and we had a little snack. Most of the time there was little conversation, but the little chatterbox couldn't always keep her mouth shut. "Do you think we should be calling the cows, Aunt Bett, and whose cows are we looking for and will they get mad when we bother their lips?" Aunt Bett looked at me for a long minute before she said: "Chile, cowslips is a plant and it grows right here, that's them right there at your feet. We're gathering cowslip so's we'll have it handy in case anybody needs to be calmed down." That was followed by the "Aunt Bett look" which meant that I was talking too much, fidgeting around too much, or just too dumb to be believed. That look usually told me to shut up and be still. She would answer my questions in her own sweet time. Hard for me to do, but I managed.
I remember being a little disappointed because I had envisioned a magical moment when we would be using cows' lips for their amazing curative powers. I didn't think much about how we would take the lips off the cow, especially since Aunt Bett had already told me it would not hurt. Anyway, we finished our morning jelly biscuit and water and we began to gather cowslip.
Cowslip was a pretty little plant. It lies flat on the ground as a rosette, and from the center rises a long stalk covered by yellow flowers. It sure did smell good in that early morning air and the bees and butterflies seemed to like it too. I spent a great deal of time playing with the butterflies and running from the bees. Cowslip, Primula veris, grows in moist soil; it blooms in mid spring and early summer and it remains evergreen throughout the cold months.
As always, I was told to take only a few of the plants, not every one of them, so having such an orderly mind I decided to gather every fifth plant. I usually made up my own system when it came to collecting anything with blooms. I sure didn't want to take more than was needed. Aunt Bett used only the leaves and the blooms, so I knew that as long as we left the root, the plants would be fine. After we had gathered enough to fill about half the burlap sack Aunt Bett carried, we started back down the mountain, Aunt Bett carrying the sack over her shoulder and me bringing up the rear and doing my share by holding on to the bottom of the sack. Aunt Bett told me that if we carried it that way, it wouldn't damage anything along the path, and nothing along the path could damage it. We stopped and rested along the way, well Aunt Bett rested and I asked questions about everything on my mind. "Aunt Bett, what do we make from the cowslip? Do you use it on little kids? Does it taste as good as it smells? Will you try it out on me? Will I die if I eat it? Aunt Bett, what makes people die? And what is it like in heaven? Do you know anybody who went to heaven? Do you think I'll go to heaven and will there be flowers there?" Well, those are the usual questions I asked her about everything and as I have told you, she was an extremely patient woman, but she answered in her own good, sweet time.
This is what she told me, but not until we made an infusion from the flowers and one from the leaves:
"Cowslip is used for many an ailment. Long time ago women thought it made them have a pretty complexion if they boiled the flowers in water and then rubbed that water on their faces. The juice from the flowers takes off spots and wrinkles. Some folks mix flowers with a little wine to wipe on their faces to make them fair in the eyes of men. Some folks eat the young leaves fresh off the plant like greens, and some folks cook them in soups. Sometimes they dry the leaves and the flowers and use them in place of tea to drink."
She stopped talking for a bit and it looked to me like she was thinking of things she wasn't sure she should tell me. So I said: "Aunt Bett, what else is it used for, cause I want to know everything, just like you do and if you don't tell me I'm not ever gonna know, so you might as well just go ahead and tell me everthing about cowslip right now. Cause if you don't, I'll just keep right on asking you till you do tell me."
"Well, chile, it's like this. Fresh gathered blossoms infused in boilin' water and simmered down with a little sugar or honey makes a fine yellow syrup. When you take it with a little water it's good for settlin' the nerves and for calming children down. If you boil the powdered roots in ale, then mix a little water in it, you can give it to a giddy child who won't stop talking and who won't rest till she knows everthing she wants to know. It's just somethin' that some folks give to children so's they can get a little rest, that's all. But we aren't going to have to do that, now are we?"
Well. I was afraid to say a word. And I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut for a little while. I even helped her dry some of the leaves and blossoms and later I helped her make an infusion for giddy children. I knew all the time she wasn't talking about me, but I wasn't going to take any chances.
All information is from the writings of my mother and my Aunt Bett
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Kniphofia, Sanannie, Poppysue, and handhelpers for the great photography!
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.