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Wild Buttercups (Ranunculus occidentalis)


Last June, all my blog entries were about water-saving gardening. I’m going to carry on the tradition (if repeating something once can be called a tradition) and dedicate my June posts this year to garden practices that save water. To me, one of the most obvious ways of saving water is using plants who already know how to survive on the free water you’re already getting – your own beautiful natives.

 I have a special fondness for this common wildflower, which I’ve know for many years. It’s the kind of feeling that prompted the Pilgrims to slip in a few flowers amongst their strictly utilitarian vegetable and herb seeds. They carried the comfort of their common dooryard and meadow flowers to this unknown land, flowers like heartsease (Viola tricolor) and dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis). These weren’t the big glamorous garden flowers of today; they were homely ambassadors of modest beauty: the field and hedge flowers of their native landscapes. These personal loves spoke through even all that Puritan guilt and utilitarian duty.

That’s the way I feel about buttercups: they’re not conspicuous, or glamorous, or productive in any obvious way, but I love them. And, I have to say, I purely detest the large swollen ranunculus relatives in the bulb catalogues, swamped in their multiple folds.

For the first time in many years (I spend less time than I should lying in fields of buttercups these days) I took a close look at buttercups, just to see what I could see. And one thing I discovered made me realize how they might have been persuaded to become the bloated patriarchs of the catalogues. For one thing, color. Wild ranunculus often sports a gleaming white petal or two, which hints that it might be amenable to changing its color, if bred for it.


The second thing is petals. The buttercups in my neighborhood (Ranunculus occidentalis) usually have five sepals, and mostly have five petals – but there are a lot of exceptions.

It doesn’t take much looking to find a buttercup with more petals than five. There’s the occasional six-petal flower. There are the ones that splay out multiple petals (the highest count I got when I went out photographing was nine, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others with more). And there are the ones that stack them up in two layers, which looks to me like a prototype (if you have an evil-genius mind) to those big fold-on-fold-on-fold ranunculus in the catalogues.


When it comes to a discussion of buttercups, there’s an important issue that can’t be avoided: do you like butter? I have no idea where the custom of holding buttercups under people’s chins, to see the yellow reflection, came from. It’s one of those bits of myth that gets passed from child to child (for how long? “Ring around the rosy” comes from the Black Plague), but is seldom noticed by adults.

Maybe it’s an old health question: in winter, people didn’t get much in the way of fats, once the cows or goats went dry and the fall butchering was eaten. Maybe it was a way of checking to see if a person’s skin had enough oil to be healthy. I realize this is far-fetched, and I invite you to add your own theories, far-fetched or close at hand.


Of course I have to admit, I didn’t learn my butter-liking techniques from Ranunculus occidentalis (occidentalis means “west” in Latin). Though I am a native California, my parents transplanted me to New Jersey at a tender age. So the buttercup I learned to put under people’s chins, sometime early in elementary school, was Ranunculus abortivus L., the littleleaf buttercup native to New Jesey.

There is more than one kind of native buttercup, even in California. The white water buttercup (Ranunculus aquatilis) grows in ponds or small streams, as the name implies. Ranunculus californicus has some of the same range as R. occidentalis, but R. californicus has  9 to 16 petals as a standard, not a variation, and grows in moist places.

Whatever their type, wild buttercups can be replanted for years of pleasure. The easiest way to seed them, of course, is to leave them uncut until the seedpods mature and they seed themselves. You can also gather ripe seed from elsewhere, and scatter it nearby, acting as a part of nature (which is, after all, what we properly are).  Of course you’ll want to be sure you’re harvesting only a small portion of seed from a good stand – you want the wild plants to flourish in their own chosen spot, as well as near you.

Where to plant them when you get the seeds home? My buttercups prefer moist water-meadows, but they will grow – for a briefer time – on the winter-rain-soaked dry upland meadows.

At least that’s true for Ranunculus occidentalis. Prairie buttercups (Ranunculus rhomboideus) like dry, well-drained soil.  Other US species don’t seem to care if it’s moist or dry.

And that’s not the end of the likes and dislikes of various kinds of buttercups. In my search for buttercup identity, I came up with scads (a specialized botanical term) of species from all over the world; they seem to especially love very far north Eurasian lands like Finland and Russia. It’s likely that, if you live in a temperate region, there’s a wild buttercup near you, just suited to your climate and rainfall.

So it seems I’ve started this post trying to tell of  a personal love, and wound up in global mystery. Love is like that. What are the homely plants that play a large part in your own inner landscape?


If you’re interested in more on natives, I’ve written up a lot of my own Northern California ones  (just select the Wild Plants). Or try Lost in the Landscape for witty, informative, and beautifully-photographed posts on Southern California natives. For California natives in general, Las Pilitas will fill you in on a plethora of varieties, uses, and habitats – plus they sell the plants in question. And there’s always the California Native Plant Society.

Those of you in Texas might enjoy Conscious Gardening, which has a lot on natives and other ways to save water in the garden. If any readers have suggestions for other reliable native plant sites outside of California, I’d really like to know. Some of the New Jersey wildlings of my youth are also dear to me, and I’d love to know to get a refresher on what their natural environments are.

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Curbstone Valley Farm June 3, 2010, 12:09 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen the native California buttercups growing wild here. I do remember buttercups though, from growing up in England, and also remember holding them under my friend’s chins. I’d forgotten about that…you’re right, it’s a bit of an odd custom.

  • Town Mouse June 3, 2010, 7:05 pm

    Yes, it’s interesting how beautiful they are when looked at from close by. We had one in a pot at last year’s Flower & Garden show, when we did the CNPS booth, and everyone said: Oh, what’s that?

  • Sylvia (England) June 4, 2010, 12:41 am

    Pomona, I noticed a buttercup in the garden last night and thought I must pull it up – I didn’t! You are right they are lovely plants but need to be controlled. Our local native is the Bulbous Buttercup, which spreads very well but like you I enjoy the cheery flowers. We may be miles apart, different climates but have so many plants in common. It is what makes blogs so really interesting. Thank you for a lovely post.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)
    PS both my ceanothus are in flower and doing well despite a cold winter.

  • Elephant's Eye June 4, 2010, 9:48 am

    So too the Freesia alba which I grew from seed, bears no relation to the huge OTT coloured freesias of horticulture.

  • Pomona Belvedere June 4, 2010, 4:07 pm

    Curbstone V, interesting to know the “Do you like butter?” custom is alive in the UK, too.

    Town Mouse, how funny: maybe you can make buttercups the next Trendy Flower!

    Sylvia, nice to hear about your Bulbous Buttercups, I’ll have to look those up. Glad your ceanothus are doing well; their wild sisters here are having a bumper year, due to rains.

    Elephant’s Eye, you are ever so right, and ever so smart: I’ve been trying, off and on, to get the Freesia alba bulbs, and keep killing them. Maybe I should try them from seed. They are a million times more desirable to me than the big colored, less-scented commercial ones.

  • Ann March 13, 2011, 8:25 pm

    I have been searching for wild buttercup seeds (5 petals) since 1958. I used to pick them in swampy woods behind my house in Duluth Minnesota. I now live by Omaha Nebraska and have never found any growing wild. Anyone have any to sell??

  • A bates August 4, 2011, 4:01 pm

    I am doing a research project on the buttercups I love them. Can you please tell me where I can get some mature bulbs up to about 7 years old ASAP . I been everywhere it’s been to hot

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