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Buttercups, History and Uses

Updated on August 1, 2015

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman

May is the month when our meadows and grasslands are redolent with dazzling buttercups. In this hub I will endeavour to to describe the lifestyle and habitat of one of the commoner species.The species I have chosen is Ranunculus bulbosa-the bulbous buttercup.All the buttercups and many of their relatives come under the genus Ranunculus which derives from the Latin rana-a frog.This because most species in the genus share the same damp habitat frequented by frogs. However,this species is the exception as we shall see.

In general the bulbous buttercup is a native perennial with a swollen base that is renewed annually from which arise one or more aerial shoots. Unlike most other species of buttercup this one delights to grow in dry grassland or well drained localities. It even flourishes on light lose soil for it has evolved the ability to survive in drought like conditions, indeed they even survive on sand dunes where they are frequently buried for periods with blown sand. It is also a characteristic species of lightly grazed pastures.

Bulbous butter cup top Daisy below

The bulbous buttercup.Photograph courtesy of Kristian Peters.
The bulbous buttercup.Photograph courtesy of Kristian Peters.
Daisies are often associated with the habitat of bulbous buttercups.
Daisies are often associated with the habitat of bulbous buttercups.

Components of the creeping buttercup


Basic Biology of the Bulbous Buttercup.

ROOTS---The name Bulbosa derives from the bulb-like swelling at the base of the stem. It is rounded in form a little flattened at each end like a miniature turnip. From this shape derives he country title of St. Anthony's turnip.Although bulb like in appearance it is in fact a corm.These corms tend to be buried to a depth of 10-30mm down in the soil. They are also 10-30mm in diameter at the time the flowers are open, the corms are very starchy by nature.

The corms do not need anything other than adequate moisture and favourable temperatures to persuade them into life.The vertical corm like stock over winters and produces new foliage in March. Nature has decreed that a new corm develops at the base of the shoot. The old corm then transfers food reserves to the new corm during February and March then the old corm dies. Thus, it is impossible to ascertain the age of the plant because it is renewed annually.

LEAVES---the stem of this species is slightly furrowed not round as in the meadow buttercup. The upper leaves are composed of long, narrow segments, the lower ones broaden out into distinct, and characteristic lobes. Incidentally, the plants common name of buttercup only came into common use comparatively recently. before then they were commonly known as crowfoots .The shape of the foliage had a fanciful resemblance to the shape of a crows' foot. This name is now only retained by the aquatic species. 

The lower leaves curl down which produces a shade. This stops the seedlings of other species from developing.

FLOWERS AND SEEDS.---The first flowers of this species may be found as early as March , however, the main flowering period is from Mid May until the end of June. The flowers are typical buttercup shaped, five spreading petals of a bright yellow colour forming the shape of a cup. The sepals that protect the closed flower buds are bend right back on to the stem when the flower expands. This is a good diagnostic feature for the sepals of the creeping buttercup and those of the meadow buttercup clasp the petals from beneath , thus supporting them.

Each individual flower head, after the petals have fallen away, produce the fruit {seed container}  in the form of a acne. Each individual acne contains around 20-30 seeds.By the end of July the ripe seeds will have been dispersed. The seeds need a period of rest before germination can occur. They require moisture but not in excess to motivate the seed into life.The resulting seedlings emerge from July until October. After the seeds have dispersed the bulbous buttercup dies down, leaving a bare patch of grass.

seeds are the main way of regenerating new plants in this species, it produces 10 times more seed than the creeping buttercup, who relies on the long runners it produces, to root at intervals thus producing new plants as they do so. seeds normally fall around the parent plant although studies have revealed that they can pass through the digestive system of cows unharmed. This is also true of birds. In this way the seeds may start their new life much farther away from their botanical mothers.

Unlike other species of buttercups the seedlings of this species will not develop if the conditions are to wet or and on heavy soils.

Rana the common frog

The genus name of Ranunculus derives from the Latin rana meaning a frog.
The genus name of Ranunculus derives from the Latin rana meaning a frog.

Medicinal Virtues.

It is prudent to mention, before looking at its medicinal virtues, that all members of the buttercup family are poisonous and therefore should NEVER be taken internally. Any one who has sunbathed in meadows where buttercups abound may very well have discovered blisters on their skin which take a fair period of time to heal. This caused by the sap in the stem and leaves that cause a reaction on the skin.

In archaic times it was said that applying the juice to the nostril provoked sneezing that would cure certain types of headache. The leaves have been used to produce blisters on wrists in rheumatism, and when infused in boiling water, as a poultice.

Physicians in archaic times produced an obnoxious mixture of the juice from the leaves to which they added salt. This was applied to plague sores. The theory was that the pain caused by this mixture would drive a way the pain of the plague. All it achieved, in truth, it double the pain the patient suffered, with blisters added to the sores.

In medieval times beggars used a similar mixture which they dabbed onto the skin of their faces and arms . This act of self mutilation was in order to get a more sympathy and to procure more pennies in their begging bowls. Thus the buttercups in general attained the name of beggars weed.

The age old children's game, of holding a flower beneath the chin to see if they"liked " butter does not cause any harm to the skin on their hands or faces.

Plague sores

In archaic times the juice was dabbed on Plague sores. This increased human misery. Photograph courtesy of PHIL.
In archaic times the juice was dabbed on Plague sores. This increased human misery. Photograph courtesy of PHIL.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hi Eddy, thank you for all your kind comments and for the vote up and share. Both are greatly appreciated. The weather is fine at the moment but the wind is still chilly. {Ah well its only March}. Roll on spring which will encourage us both to produce more work. Best wishes to you.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      4 years ago from Wales

      Oh how I have always loved Buttercups but never knew any of this information. Thank you as always DAL.

      Voting up and sharing onto my Facebook pages. It is sunny here across the border and hoping its the same with you. Take care and enjoy your day.


    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      jill, thank you for reading your comments are always welcome. It is thought to be the plants defence mechanism from being eaten by animals.

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 

      8 years ago from Philippines

      I love your buttercup and daisy photos.

      Thank you for this bit of Botany lesson. I am just wondering - how can something so beautiful be poisonous? Well, one answer is probably, it's a kind of defense mechanism. Is there another answer?

      Thanks for sharing this D.A.L.!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      suziecat7, thank you for the visit and for leaving your encouraging comment.

      lelane55, your welcome and thank you too, for your kind comment.

    • lelanew55 profile image


      8 years ago

      Good information and beautiful photos as usual. Thank you for sharing.

    • suziecat7 profile image


      8 years ago from Asheville, NC

      What a great Hub - just what a Hub is supposed to be. Thanks.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Kaie Arwen, it is only when the stems are broken and the sap has been in contact with the skin for a few minutes that they will cause harm. You are safe to walk through these beautiful flowers. Thank you for reading and for leaving your comment.

      Darlene, glad to share it with you my friend.

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      8 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Great hub, I never knew about buttercups, great information. I enjoyed reading this, thumbs up...

    • Kaie Arwen profile image

      Kaie Arwen 

      8 years ago

      Fascinating............. and thanks for the info; I won't be walking through a field of buttercups anytime soon, but I do love to look at them! They are a beautiful flower!


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