Meadow Buttercup – Ranunculus acris

I suspect that a great number of people share the childhood memories of holding a buttercup flower under one’s chin to ‘see if one likes butter’. The yellowness that buttercups reflect is striking, but it is a pale imitation of their sunny faces. I remember picking fistfuls of buttercups as a child (albeit a different species) and putting them into a little ceramic vase my mother had. They looked so cheerful on a windowsill, brightening up the whole room, and even on cloudy days they were brighter than the slightly worn gilt on the rim of that impeccably white little vase.

The height of meadow buttercups is just perfect; they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with most grasses, and so their flowers are held at just the same height as any other plants that might grow in a meadow. When viewed en masse, they are positively radiant.

Meadow buttercups are beautiful at any time of day, but I like them best either at noon, when they appear as tiny echoes of the sun overhead, or in the evening, when the light is golden and thick like honey, draping them with its warm glow.

Insects are also fans of meadow buttercups, and beetles, butterflies, and ladybirds (ladybugs) can all be found upon their flowers.

I can attest to the fact that they make excellent pressed flowers, as they retain that shine in their petals even when dried.

Distribution

Native to:

  • Arctic and temperate Eurasia
  • Greenland
  • Aleutian Islands
  • Other temperate regions

Literary Use

Many have written poetry about buttercups, and here is one such poem, entitled simply ‘Buttercups’, by Sarah J. Day.

Buttercups

The buttercups with shining face

Smile upward as I pass.

They seem to lighten all the place

Like sunshine in the grass.

 

And though not glad nor gay was I

When first they came in view;

I find when I have passed them by,

That I am smiling, too.

– Sarah J. Day.

Toxicity

  • Though the ingestion of meadow buttercup purportedly poisons cattle and sheep, in experiments cattle which were fed increasing amounts of meadow buttercup at the flowering stage (up to a maximum of 25kg per day), the cattle gained weight and showed no negative side effects. However, the cattle were initially reluctant to try the plant, and its toxicity may be higher before flowering, thus rendering it unsafe for consumption.
  • Dogs can react badly to ingesting the plant, with reports of swollen eyes, muzzle, lips, and nose.
  • Ingestion of meadow buttercup can cause paralysis in pigs.

Food Use

  • Leaves were cooked and eaten as greens by the Cherokee.

Medicinal Use

  • In Ireland, the flowers of some buttercup species were mixed with garlic and applied to skin to repel midges.
  • Used as a painkiller to treat headaches by the Abnaki, Micmac, and Montagnais groups. The flowers and leaves were crushed together, then sniffed by the patient.
    • Similarly, the Iroquois treated chest pains by applying a poultice of crushed buttercups to the chest.
      • The same treatment was used for colds.
      • Meadow buttercup was also traditionally used to treat pleural inflammation.
  • The Bella Coola made a poultice from the roots and used it to treat boils. In the UK, the sap was also used to treat warts.
  • The caustic sap was traditionally used in the UK as a counter-irritant, to treat gout and rheumatism. It was applied externally as a poultice to the affected area.
  • The Cherokee made a poultice from meadow buttercups to treat abscesses.
  • Juice extracted from the plant was used by the Cherokee as a sedative.
  • An infusion of plant parts was gargled as a treatment for sore throats by the Cherokee.
  • An infusion of the roots was used to treat diarrhea by the Iroquois.

Other Uses

  • A strong infusion of buttercups, when poured onto the ground, allegedly forces earthworms out. This could be a useful technique for anyone who likes gathering their own fishing bait.

Etymology and Naming

  • Ranunculus is a diminutive of ‘rana’, meaning ‘little frog’. This name is in reference to the amphibious habitat of many Ranunculus species.
  • Acris means ‘sharp-tasted’, ‘acid’, or ‘acrid’, and is a cognate with the word acer (the scientific name for the maple tree genus).

Additional common names include:

  • Tall Buttercup
  • Common Buttercup
  • Crowfoot
  • Eagle’s Foot

References:

  • Hatfield, Gabrielle. (2007). Hatfield’s Herbal. 1st ed. (Pages 56-57). London, England: Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140515770
  • Allen, David., and Hatfield, Gabrielle. (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. 1st ed. (Page 71). Portland, OR: Timber Press. ISBN 0881926388
  • Cooper, Marion R., and Johnson, Anthony W. (1984). Poisonous Plants in Britain and their Effects on Animals and Man. 1st ed. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. (Pages 194-195). ISBN 0112425291
  • Wink, Michael., and van Wyk, Ben-Erik. (2010). Medicinal Plants of the World. 4th ed. (Page 424). Portland, OR: Timber Press. ISBN 9780881926026
  • Moerman, D. (2009). Native American Medicinal Plants. 1st ed. Portland, OR: Timber Press. (Pages 406-407). ISBN 9780881929874
  • Moerman, D. (2010). Native American Food Plants. 1st ed. Portland, OR: Timber Press. (Page 212). ISBN 9781604691894
  • Gledhill, David. (2008). The Names of Plants. 4th ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (Pages 34, 326). ISBN 9780521685535

Other Buttercup Poems:

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8 thoughts on “Meadow Buttercup – Ranunculus acris”

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