Quoddy Nature Notes – Buttercups

If I was a clever, commercial writer I would write a blockbuster story about ‘Betsy from Buttercup Farm’ on Leighton Point Road in Pembroke. This story, set in the mid 1800’s, would be the Washington County version of ‘Little House on the Prairie’, as Dad would come home after his 13 hour shift as a puddler at the Pembroke Iron Company to be greeted by his little daughter Betsy as she romped through the buttercups to welcome her father. Mom would be standing in the doorway, beaming, and wiping her hands on her apron and announcing that dinner was ready. Just the thought of this idyllic setting makes me all gulpy.

Field in Pembroke, where ‘Buttercup Farm’ could have been.

This is a good year for buttercups here in the Quoddy region. Our species of buttercups like cool, wet weather and heavy soils, and we have had plenty of that, although buttercups can thrive almost anywhere. As a matter of fact a lot of our buttercups are introduced weeds. (Oh oh. My super story is falling apart. Buttercups were probably scarce here in the 1800’s) Although there are about 600 species of the buttercup genus Ranunculus, we only have about 20 species here in Maine. The usual buttercup is the Common or Tall buttercup R. acris. An introduced species from Europe, this plant is a real nuisance to any of us who like to garden. It has a very effective root system that can penetrate the toughest clay, and stubbornly resists being pulled up, and when attacked vigorously in this manner the buttercup stem just calmly breaks off at ground level. There it waits until your back is turned, and in a few days the sneaky buttercup returns to its former glory. Buttercups have some other tricks; they are poisonous. All species of Ranunculus contain varying amounts of the irritant protoanemonin , and this attacks tender skin. If growing buttercups are consumed extensively by livestock including horses, cattle, sheep and pigs, it will inflame the throat and mucus membranes of these unlucky critters and in severe cases can be fatal. Fortunately the bitter taste of buttercups usually keeps animals at bay, unless they are severely stressed for food. Notice in typical pastures that the buttercups are essentially untouched while the grass around them may be grazed pretty short. If you are weeding your garden of buttercups it’s better to wear gloves, otherwise you may get a rash, especially between your fingers. I sometimes get a raspy throat when I’m weeding buttercups from the garden, but I think that’s from the descriptive new words I invent and use pretty loudly. The toxin in buttercups is rendered harmless by drying, so hay with dried buttercups is OK for livestock, but not good quality.

So are buttercups useful for anything? The Persian buttercup, R. asiaticus, is a handsome multicolored flower with very paper thin petals. Hardy only to zone 8, it is a greenhouse flower for Maine. In Britain the Creeping buttercup, R. repens, is used to estimate the age of meadows and grasslands based on “…the accumulation of macro-somatic mutations”(?). Apparently if creeping buttercups lives in one place for a long enough time they will mutate and more than 5 petals will appear on the flowers. The process of this mutation has been claimed to be calibrated, and the rough age of the grassland can then be determined.
Buttercups are not recommended much in any of my herbal references. Apparently old world beggars used to use a poultice of freshly cut buttercup leaves on their skin to cause a rash and raise blisters so that they would generate more sympathy. Some herbalists claim that the short term skin irritation has a curing effect on such chronic ailments as rheumatism and arthritis. It looks to me that if buttercups are to be enjoyed, it should be from a distance. I wish I knew how to distance them from my garden. I wonder what Betsy thought.