Buttercup Flower: Interesting Things to Know


When the snow thaws and the grass turns green again, one of the first flowers to emerge from the soil is the buttercup flower. But there's a lot more to these tiny yellow flowers than meets the eye.

From magical tales of fairies and blind coyotes to the scientific reason why buttercups turn your skin yellow, these flowers are incredibly interesting. Yet, despite this intrigue, the buttercup is largely forgettable as both a garden and wildflower.

So what exactly is a buttercup? And why does this flower play such a large role in folklore and popular culture?

When you picture a buttercup flower, you probably imagine a tiny yellow flower synonymous with spring and Easter time. But the term "buttercup" is actually used for countless different flowers.

While we'll be focusing on the yellow variety here, don't be surprised if you find a range of flowers under the "buttercup" name.

Buttercups are one of the most famous members of the Ranunculaceae family. In fact, they're so well-known that most people refer to this taxonomical family as, simply, the buttercup family. Despite this common name, there are over 2,000 species of flowers within this family (only a few of which we typically consider buttercups).

The classic buttercup has five bright-yellow petals arranged in a single, symmetrical layer. Buttercup petals are extremely shiny, which will come into play later on when we look at this flower's role in folklore and old wives' tales.

From an evolutionary standpoint, many botanists consider the Ranunculaceae family as one of the most basic flower families seen today. That's because the buttercup flower features many separate and irregularly numbered flower parts.

On the other hand, evolutionary complex flowers have developed fewer, fused flower parts that are consistently numbered across specimens.

Common buttercup varieties

Even when we narrow down our definition of a buttercup flower to those with small, yellow-petaled flowers, there are many varieties that fall into this category. Some of the most common buttercup flower varieties include:

Ranunculus eschscholtzii, or the snowpatch buttercup, is one of the most iconic-looking varieties of buttercup flower. This flower grows in small tufts only a few inches from the ground. Despite the name, these buttercups grow throughout summer. But you will need to go into rocky or alpine zones to find these cute blooms.

Ranunculus flabellaris, or the yellow water buttercup, is a type of buttercup flower that emerges from mud or water across the Midwest United States. These flowers have short stems and large, branching leaves that spread across the water's surface.

Ranunculus acris, or the meadow buttercup, is a tall, spindly version of the buttercup flower that often emerges from grassy meadows or along the roadside. The meadow buttercup is native to Europe and Asia but has been extremely successful in the United States and Canada following introduction.

Unfortunately, this success means the meadow buttercup flower is an invasive weed in many areas.

Ranunculus repens, or the creeping buttercup, is one of the most common buttercup varieties throughout the United States. Like the meadow buttercup, it grows in tall stalks topped with yellow flowers.

When Do Buttercup flowers grow

As we mentioned, the buttercup flower goes hand-in-hand with springtime in most people's minds. That's because in many areas the buttercup is the first flower to break through the thawing ground.

Most buttercup varieties do prefer April or May, but this isn't always the case. Depending on the precise species, though, buttercups bloom anywhere from early-April to late-summer.

In most areas, buttercups are perennial flowers. Once a plant is established, you can expect it to return and bloom about the same time each year.

The Buttercup Flower and Folklore

Buttercup Flowers with a beam of sunlihgt

image source: pixabay.com

The buttercup flower has a close relation to childhood. Many of us remember the excitement of going outside and finding buttercups and crocus poking through the ground on the first warm days of spring.

Because of this association, buttercups symbolize childishness, humility, naivety, and other traits common in children. But perhaps the most interesting associations with this flower come in the form of folklore.

While there are several stories about how the buttercup got its name or how it first came to be, here are the four most common tales surrounding this tiny, yellow flower:

Sweet cow's milk

One of the most popular tales of how the buttercup flower got its name has to do with cows and their milk. In this story, farmers realized that cows that grazed on the buttercup flowers growing in their fields produced the sweetest milk.

Sadly, there's no proven connection between the consumption of these flowers and the sweetness of a cow's milk. In fact, the buttercup flower is extremely toxic to cattle, and most will avoid eating this plant at all costs.

But it is still a cute theory about where the buttercup first got its name.

The singer

Another common tale about the buttercup's name actually has to do with its scientific names: Ranunculaceae (family) and Ranunculus (genus). Legend claims that a young man with a beautiful singing voice, named Ranunculus, wandered the forest day-after-day.

One day, Ranunculus came across several wood nymphs. Wanting to impress these creatures, he sang with all he had. But instead of impressing the magical nymphs, he dropped dead from exhaustion.

In his final resting place, a cluster of buttercup flowers grew. And to honor Ranunculus and his voice, these flowers were given his name.

In actuality, the name Ranunculus means "little frog" in Latin. Most people attribute this name choice to the buttercup's tendency to grow along patches of water. We can always pretend, though, that there's a bit more magic to the origin story than it first seems.

The miser and the fairies

Another fantastical origin story involves a greedy man and a group of fairies.

An old miser traveled through a forest carrying a sack of gold. When he came across a group of fairies, they requested a small gold offering to pass through their home.

Of course, the greedy man didn't want to part with his gold. Taking matters into their own hands, the fairies slashed through the sack of gold coins. As the coins scattered across the forest floor, yellow buttercups emerged to take their place.

That's why the buttercup flower has such a bright, stunning color.

​The coyote's eye

When it comes to the buttercup flower, our personal favorite origin story is of the coyote and his eyes. In this story, a playful coyote is carelessly throwing his eyes into the air and catching them. But his folly is ultimately rewarded by an eagle swooping down and grabbing both of his eyes before flying away.

Blinded, the coyote crawls through the meadow until he comes across a flowering bush. Feeling the soft flowers with his paws, he plucks two from their stems and puts them in his eyes' place.

With the use of these powerful flowers, he can see once again. These flowers, of course, were buttercups.

In areas where this legend is common knowledge, such as the United States Pacific Northwest, people often call buttercups "coyote's eyes."

Why Does the Buttercup Flower Turn Your Skin Yellow?

Woman lying down on a buttercup flower and grass

image source: unsplash.com via Wes Hicks

As a child, you might remember hearing that if you held a buttercup to your chin and the skin turned yellow, you loved butter. While the buttercup flower doesn't hold any butter-loving prediction powers, it can really turn your skin yellow. In a sense, at least.

Remember when we mentioned the buttercup petals' shininess? Now is the moment when that fact becomes relevant.

The buttercup flower features two reflective layers of epidermal cells in each petal. These cells contain carotenoids which absorb all light waves except for yellow, producing an extremely vibrant yellow hue.

But these cells are so reflective that they give off yellow light strong enough to reflect onto your skin or another surface. So the buttercup flower doesn't actually turn your skin yellow. It does, however, reflect visible yellow light onto your skin.

Growing Buttercups in Your Own Garden

Buttercup flowers and grass

image source: pexels.com

Are you fascinated by the buttercup's rich history and mythology? If so, buttercup flowers are surprisingly easy to grow in your own garden.

Like most other spring flowers, buttercups grow from root tubers called bulbs. By planting these bulbs in autumn, you can look forward to a lush blanket of buttercups come spring time.

While you might be able to find traditional yellow buttercups for your garden, you're more likely to find other members of the buttercup family. But when planting yellow buttercups, make sure you are not unknowingly spreading an invasive species in your region.

If you do plan to grow buttercups in your garden, keep in mind that these flowers are not just toxic when eaten. The sap within the stems can also cause irritation or even blistering of unprotected skin.

Avoid growing particularly noxious varieties and ensure that children, livestock, and pets stay away from these plants.

Depending on your location, you might even see wild buttercups growing in local meadows or fields. Of course, these plants might be invasive and should be addressed accordingly. But if not, they can add a natural pop of bright color to your property.

Whether you choose to grow your own buttercup flower collection or admire these plants from afar, they are undeniably one of the most interesting flowers around.

Do you have fond memories of buttercups? Tell us all about it in the comments!

Jonathan E. Bass

Graduated from Middle Tennessee State University. I am currently a gardener. I have a small garden behind my house. I love it.

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