Wildlife Column with Prof Ian Rotherham
I wrote last week about how the humble meadow buttercup or Ranunculus acris is returning to meadows and roadsides.
One of our most resilient wildflowers of grasslands, surviving when others are squeezed out by modern farming methods, this flower quickly recovers itsabundance if fertilizer levels drop and management is less intensive. We see this today with the buttercup on the rise as some farmers revert to more environmentally-sensitive methods. Quite tall, upright and elegant, meadow buttercup is a dominant species in old meadows, less-intensive pastures, and along flower-rich roadside verges and urban green-spaces. As we move into summer proper, this buttercup at its peak lights up fields and other open spaces. Not for meadow buttercups the shady lane, wood or riverbank; this is a flower of open sunlight and bigger horizons and it is delightful.
The name ‘buttercup’ makes eminent sense with colour of butter, the shape of the flower, and its abundance in cow pastures because the cattle don’t eat it; the Latin name being ‘acris’ meaning acrid. This avoidance in part explains the buttercup’s success. Livestock avoid eating the green plant and it causes blisters if they do. Even carrying buttercup in the palm of the hand can supposedly cause inflammation, and herbalists 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’.
It seems that ‘rheum’ is ‘thin mucus naturally discharged from the eyes, nose, or mouth during sleep and which dries and gathers as a crust in the corners of the eyes or the mouth, on the eyelids, or under the nose.’ This sounds very unpleasant but I’m not sure so please don’t do this at home!
The flower was once known as upright crowfoot, meadow crowfoot, goldweed, kingcup, crowpeckle, and soldier buttons. Other buttercups include marsh marigold, lesser spearwort, and lesser celandine, one of our earliest flowers of the year. Formerly called ‘pilewort’, it was prescribed for haemorrhoids by herbalist practitioners.