Consider the buttercups

At a recent conference on biodiversity in churchyards, a handful of us snatched a few minutes to look at the wild flowers of the neighbouring All Saints churchyard, searching for the gone-over heads of meadow saxifrage and the soft leaves of black knapweed, not yet in flower. I asked the delegates that if they took away just one thing from this brief flower walk, I wanted it to be a willingness to look more closely at buttercups.

Buttercups are part of our everyday, holding them under the chin, cursing their tenacity in the lawn or vegetable plot; their glossy yellow petals, of which there are usually 5, are as simple as child’s drawing of a flower, but look more closely and the different species are a key to the place where they grow. Gardeners most often encounter creeping buttercup, Ranunculus repens, with large glossy flowers and dark green leaves; repens meaning creeping or crawling, like the repentant. At All Saints, we hunted for the early flowering bulbous buttercup Ranunculus bulbosus, easily indentified by its smooth yellow sepals; these are the petal-shaped casings that hold the flower in bud. When bulbous buttercup opens, these fold back against the stem, pointing sharply down to the bulbs underground. In creeping buttercup these are pale green and cup the flower in a star shape behind the petals. Once the flowers die back, bulbous buttercup is hard to find, but it is a classic plant of old meadows, as is the tall and slender meadow buttercup Ranunculus acris. Acris, like acrid, means bitter or irritating and indeed, few things eat this unpalatable plant, leaving it to stand tall in older meadows, adding yellow to the greens and browns and purples of meadow grasses. Meadow buttercups reach up to knee height, with fine, almost delicate leaves and pale yellow sepals, also in a star shape behind the flower. When I see meadow buttercups, my heart races a little, for they are sometimes a sign of meadows that have escaped too many fertilisers, sprays or re-seeding and there may be less common gems underneath: orchids or hay rattle, birds foot trefoil or meadow vetchling that scrambles over the tall summer grass; all of these plants are much loved by bees and butterflies and are characteristic of the old meadows and pastures that have all but vanished from our landscape in the past 60 years.

A few weeks ago, I surveyed a meadow in Brundall, tucked on the edge of the Broads, and had to look twice in some places to distinguish meadow buttercup from lesser spearwort Ranunculus flamula, for they are easily confused at a glance. Here they grew side by side, intertwined on the margins of the field’s wet hollows. Lesser spearwort has a much smaller flower, its petals barely 2 cm across, but with sepals very like meadow buttercup and distinctive spear-shaped leaves; it is a plant of wet meadows and pond-edges and at the Brundall meadow, beneath the tall flowers and grasses, were the striking magenta flowers of southern marsh orchids. In case you are wondering, greater spearwort Ranunculus lingua is indeed a larger, but less common, version of the lesser, this time with flowers up to 5 cm across.

Celery leaved buttercup Ranunculus sceleratus, a plant of wet places and the margins of summer ponds, has lobed leaves that do indeed resemble celery, with clusters of small yellow flowers. Deeper out in the water, the white-flowered crowfoots, of which there are several different species, may float on the surface and these too are buttercups, with the same simple arrangement of petals.

Finally, a word of caution, for in many meadows, the yellow, child’s drawing flowers may not be buttercups at all; many, are potentillas, related to roses: creeping cinquefoil Potentilla reptans has five-fingered leaves splayed out like a hand and creeps on long stems, but its five-petalled yellow flower is less glossy than those of the buttercups; tormentil Potentilla erecta, is a plant of heaths and acidic, often sandy, soils with small flowers, usually with four petals, finely dissected leaves and tall uptight stems. Silverweed Potentilla anserina has fronds of feathery leaves, silver-white underneath and cheerful pale yellow flowers, close to the ground.

These brief descriptions are no substitutes for a wild flower book, with their keys, drawings and photographs, but hopefully they will inspire you to search the grasslands around you and take a closer look at these golden flowers of summer.

Also posted on the Norfolk Wildlife Trust blog 2015

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