The humble meadow buttercup or Ranunculus acris is one of our most resilient wildflowers of grasslands, surviving when others are squeezed out by modern farming methods and quickly recovering to abundance if fertilizer levels drop and management is less intensive. Therefore, in recent years, thanks in part to more conservation-sensitive farmers and to Environmental Stewardship grants, our buttercups are on the rise. Not to be confused with the aggressive weed of wet sites and especially of your garden or lawn, the creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) , the meadow buttercup is an altogether prettier and more discerning plant. The former has distinctively triangular lobed leaves, the latter delicately fingered palmate ones. Quite tall, upright and elegant, meadow buttercup is a dominant species in old meadows and less-intensive pastures, and along flower-rich roadside verges and even, increasingly if given a chance, in urban green-spaces. Now as we move into summer proper, the buttercup is at its peak and lights up fields and other open spaces. Not for the meadow buttercup the shady lane, wood or riverbank; this is a flower of open sunlight and bigger horizons and it is delightful. Joined soon by ox-eye daisies perhaps we can celebrate the native wildflowers in urban and rural places since horticultural fashion and tidiness are once again squeezing them out from many sites.
The name ‘buttercup’ whilst making eminent sense, with the colour of butter and the shape of the flower, is relatively new, maybe commonly used since the eighteenth century. Before that the flower was known as upright crowfoot, meadow crowfoot, goldweed, kingcup, crowpeckle, and soldier buttons. I wonder if any local or regional names survive in Yorkshire; we must have had them in the past. The buttercup family includes a number of other familiar species such as the splendid marsh marigold of wet woods and marshes, and the lesser spearwort, a diminutive flower of ponds and moorland flushes. Another cousin is lesser celandine, one of our earliest flowers of the year and formerly called ‘pilewort’ as prescribed for haemorrhoids by herbalist practitioners. The scientific name ‘acris’ is from the particularly intense acridity of all parts of the plant. Livestock avoid eating the green plant and it will cause blisters if they do; and this avoidance in part explains the buttercup’s success. Indeed carrying it a distance in the palm of the hand can supposedly cause inflammation. It is described as ‘… a fiery and hot-spirited herb… not fit to be given inwardly …….an ointment of the leaves and flowers will raise a blister and may be applied to the nape of the neck to draw rheum from the eyes’. Please don’t try this at home!
Incidentally, along with many other flowers, which thrive on wetness, the creeping buttercup is having a great time too. In my garden, they have grown to gigantic proportions and have had to be duly ‘thinned’. Like the burgeoning mole population, this is a consequence of the wet weather of recent months.
Ian D. Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change