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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© Robert Queen
Wet soils flush with dark greens and bright blossoms when the marsh marigolds bloom.

© Robert Queen

April 2006

A burst of yellow glory

Its "flowers" are not petals and the marsh marigold's tiny leaves grow into giants the size of dinner plates.

Anita Carpenter

Masses of blooming marsh marigolds demand our attention. The buttery-yellow blossoms set against waxy, dark leaves add bold color to wet meadows, swamps, streambanks, lowland woods and alder thickets.

The first wildflowers to bloom each spring – the hepaticas, spring beauties, pasqueflowers and the like – splash gentle colors on the warming countryside dappling the brown earth with pastels of lavender, pink and white. Their subtle colors build to a blazing crescendo of yellow glory as the eye-catching marsh marigolds burst onto the springtime scene in late April and into May.

Marsh marigolds, Caltha palustris, are not true marigolds at all. These perennial marsh plants belong to the buttercup or Ranunculacae family while the orange and yellow garden-variety marigolds are members of the asters.

Nor are marsh marigold "blossoms" true flowers. The five to nine bright yellow "petals" are really sepals, structures that in most plants are green and hang under the true petals. In this case, the sepals form a shallow cuplike flower in which 50 to 120 stamens look like a fuzzy button surrounding several female pistils. After bees and syrphid flies pollinate the blossoms, the flowers will quickly drop the sepals. Oblong purplish seeds develop follicles and the seeds drop when the follicles split open.

The marsh marigold's shiny green leaves are round, heart or kidney-shaped. Some have smooth edges and others are saw-toothed. The leaves are supported by hollow green stems that grow from eight to 24 inches high in their wet environment. Sometimes just one leaf tops a stem, but often the stems branch once or twice and an additional leaf tops each branch. The leaves are quite small when the masses of flowers put on their show, but they will continue to grow into dinner-plate sized giants once the blooms fade. Nothing dines on the leaves since they contain poisonous alkaloids.

The marsh marigold is also known by a second rather interesting common name – cowslip. Why and how the unusual name came to be is speculative. Many common names change or lose their true meaning over time. Early explorers often named "new" plants after similar-looking plants back home. Perhaps a European cowslip with yellow blossoms and large shiny leaves also grew in wet places.

One similar European plant, Primula veris, is really a primrose, not a buttercup. Though the two plants resemble each other, they aren't related. Perhaps they grew in muddy places where cows slipped? Or perhaps the cowslip has been mispronounced all these years and the two syllables originally broke between the s and l – cow's lip instead of cowslip. The earliest recorded treatise on the history of English plants, written in 1568 in Olde English recorded the common name of Primula veris as oxis-lip or sometimes cowes-lippe. Over time the name may simply have slurred to cowslip.

Presently, marsh marigold is the preferred common name, yet I think cowslip has a fanciful quality about it. That gives rise to one final question: Have you ever seen a cowslip under the fence? What does that really mean? Find your own answer on a spring walk.

Anita Carpenter hikes near her Oshkosh home with a field guide in one pocket and a dictionary in the other.