Oxlips at Hayley Wood

Botany is one of those passions you can engage in almost anywhere – this could be spotting dandelions brightening in the lawn, ivy-leaved toadflax scrambling up the wall or whitlow grass offering a tiny bunch of flowers beside the pavement. Sometimes however, a flower requires a pilgrimage and oxlip – Primula elatior – is one of those species.

A rare woodland flower, somewhere between a cowslip and a primrose in appearance, it’s distribution is largely restricted to the point in the country where the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Cambridge meet. Hayley Wood has always been in my head as the destination for this pilgrimage – I can’t for the life of me recall which book which introduced me to the name but it has always stuck.

Situated near Cambridge, Hayley Wood is an ancient woodland, mentioned in the Doomesday book and owned, managed and protected by the Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire since 1962. It plays host to a wide range of ancient woodland species – I spotted dog’s mercury, bluebell, yellow archangel, bugle and lesser celandine to name but a few. I hope to return later in the season to seek a few more of it’s treasures but this day was all about the oxlip.

The day I visited was overcast and perpetually interrupted by April showers, but although a little late for the main event, I was not disappointed…




Cowslip or Oxlip?

Cowslips are a common sight in April and May – brightening up grasslands and motorway verges with their swathes of nodding yellow flower heads. When I first started out in botany, I spent a good while convincing myself that the cowslips were indeed cowslips and not oxlips – Rose’s wildflower key tells you that cowslip is like oxlip but the ‘leaves are more wrinkled and the stem is more gradually tapered to the base’ which requires a certain amount of experience to compare! Luckily the sniff test (cowslip flowers smell like apricots) saw me right!

One simple rule of thumb is location  – true oxlips are a rare ancient woodland species restricted to the part of the country where the counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex meet. Unless you are in a location like this, you are unlikely to be encountering oxlip. But to be on the safe side, here’s a few more pointers!

Cowslip – Primula veris

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Cowslip flowers at Cribbs Meadow – the bright yellow bell-shaped flowers at the top of the stems all nod in a single direction

The flowers of cowslip, like those of oxlip, form a nodding head facing in a single direction. They can be long-stemmed – up to 25cm tall, but are often shorter where the nutrient levels are lower. The flowers are deep yellow with orange flecks in the centre.

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Cowslip flower at Muston Meadow showing the orange flecks within the flowers – these smell of apricot if you get in close!

You can find up to 30 flowers in a flower head, or sometimes just a few. Remember to take a sniff – the apricot aroma is quite distinctive in a fresh flower!

Oxlip – Primula elatior

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Oxlip flowering at Hayley Wood – the flowers nod in a single direction and there can be 10-30 in an umbel

Oxlip, as mentioned above, is a rare native found in ancient woodland in a restricted area of the country. If you are encountering the species on a roadside verge or in a meadow in Nottinghamshire, it’s probably not an oxlip. However the species can be bought as a plant, or grown from seed, so it is quite possible it can spring up in unexpected places if it escaped the confines of its sowing!

The oxlip is similar in structure and stature to the cowslip, in growing to ~25cm high and having 10-30 flowers on a head. As with the cowslip, all of the flowers will be nodding on the same side of the stem.

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The oxlip flowers are more open and spreading, lacking the bell-shape of the cowslip. They are generally a paler yellow, and lack the orange flecks inside.

The oxlip flower is less bell-shaped than the cowslip, with more open spreading petals and a lighter, paler yellow. The centres of the flowers lack the orange spots usually found with cowslip.

False oxlip – Primula vulgaris x veris 

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False oxlip along the Grantham Canal – the flowers have the orange flecks of the cowslip but spread wider, reflecting the primrose part-parantage of this hybrid. The flowers face in all directions, rather than nodding in a single aspect.

Just to add to the confusion, there is another species which can be confused with both cowslip and oxlip and this is the false oxlip. The latin name is Primula vulgaris x veris reflecting the fact that a false oxlip is in fact a cross between a primrose and a cowslip, occuring where these two species are found in close proximity. If you find something which you suspect to be an oxlip outside of the correct habitat and geographical area, a false oxlip is your most likely suspect!

The flowers are more open and spreading, a little like an oxlip, but you can see the telltale orange flecks which indicate the cowslip parantage. Rather than nodding in a single direction, as a pure oxlip or cowslip would do, these flowers face in all directions. There is significant variability in the character or these hybrids, with some being closer to the primrose parent and some more strongly representing cowslip.