Hold one underneath somebody’s chin, and if it reflects a little patch of yellow on to their skin, it means they like butter. Has it ever failed to work? Once upon a time everybody could recognise a buttercup, and presumably everybody liked butter. There would have been a lot less of it about!
But next time you see one of these cheery little flowers, have a closer look. There are actually eleven species called buttercup, and quite a few others like them in the ranunculus group to which they belong…not to mention some little yellow flowers in the rose family that look very similar. Let’s forget about all the extras and concentrate on the two native varieties of buttercup that are found at St Nicks – Meadow Buttercup, Ranunculus acris, and Creeping Buttercup, Ranunculus repens. Their flowers are virtually identical: five bright, shiny, rich-yellow petals held on a stalk in a shallow cup-shape, with a little greenish-yellow sepal following the curve of each petal. The seed-heads are also very similar: pollinated flowers give way to tight green clusters of individual seeds, gradually ripening to brown. From May to the end of June is the time to look for traditional meadows covered in Buttercups, and they will continue to flower through to August, but in a mild spring they will start to open earlier, and Creeping Buttercup in particular can put out the odd flower right through autumn.
Creeping Buttercup is the one you’re most likely to find on your lawn. Find out how it gets its name by tracking the “runners” it puts out. Every little node along the stem can take root and start a new plant until in no time there’s a thick mat of them. Mown regularly, they survive by growing close to the ground. Left alone, they can reach about 60cm. Meadow Buttercup will grow to almost twice the height, and relies on seeds alone to reproduce itself.
The best way to tell them apart is to look at the leaves. Both species have leaves with three main lobes. In Creeping Buttercup, the lobes look fairly solid and the central one is on its own stalk. Those of Meadow Buttercup are more deeply divided but don’t have individual stalks. At St Nicks, Meadow Buttercup grows mainly where you’d expect – in the meadow and other areas of open grass, where its height allows it to compete successfully with tall grasses. Creeping Buttercup is commoner along path edges where it can put up with shade and doesn’t mind being cut back. There is another fairly common native buttercup that hasn’t been found at St Nicks, probably because it prefers dry and poorer soil. This is Bulbous Buttercup, Ranunculus bulbosus. It looks very similar to Creeping Buttercup, but is easy to pick out because its sepals turn down, away from the petals, to form a little separate collar below them.
There are a lot of oddities about Buttercups. Native plants usually have long-standing names, but until the eighteenth century most writers called them Crowfoot. According to Culpeper it had a lot of local names, but the ones he lists don’t include Buttercup. He refers to it as “this furious biting herb” – not surprising given that some species are poisonous and most can cause skin irritation. That makes it all the more odd that they are often linked with daisies as flowers for children to pick and play with. In the Victorian language of flowers, they can sometimes mean riches, but more often ingratitude and childishness. Definitely unpredictable little plants!
As for holding them under your chin – serious scientists are interested in why their colour reflects so well. If you’d like to know the answer, check out http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/why-buttercups-reflect-yellow-on-chins. Your June blogger would like to believe that the reflective qualities explain her inability to get a decent photo of the flowers……