Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Don't Eat the Buttercups

A weekend hike with our friends Steve and Amy* was educational as always.  There was a wide variety of newly emerged spring wildflowers to identify as well as the old standbys like the ubiquitous buttercups.  Amy just sent me some followup information on buttercups, including why not to add them to your salad.

Buttercups are in the Ranunculus genus, with over 600 species worldwide.  They vary from our typical yellow ones to pure white with a yellow center.  While many can have distinctive features, the species underfoot here requires closer inspection to pin down the exact name.

In addition to the bright yellow petals, buttercups have a distinctive shine of melted butter on the petals.  This is seen only when the flower, light, and your eye or camera are at the perfect angle.  This distinctive shine of all buttercup species is is due to specialized cells spread below the petals' surface cells.  Pictures from this website will demonstrate the difference a viewing angle can make in the shine.

Buttercups contain a irritant juice, bitter in taste which causes pain and inflamation.  "Beggars in the middle ages rubbed the leaves of buttercups on their arms and legs to produce blisters and ulcers in order to look more pitiful and thus collect more money."**  Native Americans would crush the root to treat skin wounds.  Now days we consider the plant to be poisonous when eaten.

According to Ecokids, "The buttercup gets its name from an old English game where children hold a buttercup flower under each other's chins.  If it leaves a yellow mark, then the child likes butter. The yellow mark is actually pollen."  Interesting but not likely to displace the video games on the cell phones of our current generation.

Speaking of pollen, there is lots of it in the air and plants right now.  Hayfever and swollen eyes are starting the last few weeks.  This website mentioned above has good closeup pictures of buttercup's pollen production.

*   Amy D. Short and Steve Craig, The Fishin' Magicians
** Ozark Wildflowers, Don Kurz