This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Bright, shining yellow, about 1 in. across, numerous, terminating long slender footstalks. Calyx of 5 spreading sepals; corolla of 5 petals; yellow stamens and carpels. Stem: Erect, branched above, hairy (sometimes nearly smooth), 2 to 3 feet tall, from fibrous roots. Leaves: In a tuft from the base, long petioled, of 3 to 7 divisions cleft into numerous lobes; stem leaves nearly sessile, distant, 3-parted.
Flowering Season - May - September.
Distribution - Naturalized from Europe in Canada and the United States; most common North.
What youngster has not held these shining golden flowers under his chin to test his fondness for butter? Dandelions and marsh-marigolds may reflect their color in his clear skin too, but the buttercup is every child's favorite. When
"Cuckoo-buds of yellow hue Do paint the meadows with delight," daisies, pink clover, and waving timothy bear them company here; not the "daisies pied," violets, and lady-smocks of Shakespeare's England. How incomparably beautiful are our own meadows in June! But the glitter of the buttercup, which is as nothing to the glitter of a gold dollar in the eyes of a practical farmer, fills him with wrath when this immigrant takes possession of his pastures. Cattle will not eat the acrid, caustic plant - a sufficient reason for most members of the Ranunailaceae to stoop to the low trick of secreting poisonous or bitter juices. Self-preservation leads a cousin, the garden monk's hood, even to murderous practices. Since children will put everything within reach into their mouths, they should be warned against biting the buttercup's stem and leaves, that are capable of raising blisters. "Beggars use the juice to produce sores upon their skin," says Mrs. Creevy. A designer might employ these exquisitely formed leaves far more profitably.
This and the bulbous buttercup, having so much else in common, have also the same visitors. " It is a remarkable fact," says Sir John Lubbock, " as Aristotle long ago mentioned, that in most cases bees confine themselves in each journey to a single species of plant; though in the case of some very nearly allied forms this is not so; for instance, it is stated on good authority (Muller) that Ranunculus acris, R. repens, and R. bulbosus are not distinguished by the bees, or at least are visited indifferently by them, as is also the case with two of the species of clover." From what we already know of the brilliant Syrphidae flies' fondness for equally brilliant colors, it is not surprising to find great numbers of them about the buttercups, with bees, wasps, and beetles - upwards of sixty species. Modern scientists believe that the habit of feeding on flowers has called out the color-sense of insects and the taste for bright colors, and that sexual selection has been guided by this taste. The most unscientific among us soon finds evidence on every hand-that flowers and insects have developed together through mutual dependence.
By having its nourishment thriftily stored up underground all winter, the Bulbous Buttercup (R. bulbosus) is able to steal a march on its fibrous-rooted sister that must accumulate hers all spring; consequently it is first to flower, coming in early May, and lasting through June. It is a low and generally more hairy plant, but closely resembling the tall buttercup in most respects, and, like it, a naturalized European immigrant now thoroughly at home in fields and roadsides in most sections of the United States and Canada.
Much less common is the Creeping Buttercup (R. repens), which spreads by runners until it forms large patches in fields and roadsides, chiefly in the Eastern States. Its leaves, which are sometimes blotched, are divided into three parts, the terminal one, often all three, stalked. May - July.
First to bloom in the vicinity of New York (from March to May) is the Hispid Buttercup (R. hispidus), densely hairy when young. The leaves, which are pinnately divided into from three to five leaflets, cleft or lobed, chiefly arise on long petioles from a cluster of thickened fibrous roots. The flower may be only half an inch or an inch and a half across. It is found in dry woods and thickets throughout the eastern half of the United States; whereas the much smaller flowered Bristly Buttercup (R. Pennsylvania's) shows a preference for low-lying meadows and wet, open ground through a wider, more westerly range. Its stout, hollow, leafy stem, beset with stiff hairs, discourages the tongues of grazing animals. June - August.
Commonest of the early buttercups is the Tufted species (R. fascicularis), a little plant seldom a foot high, found in the woods and on rocky hillsides from Texas and Manitoba, east to the Atlantic, flowering in April or May. The long-stalked leaves are divided into from three to five parts ; the bright yellow flowers, with rather narrow, distant petals, measure about an inch across. They open sparingly, usually only one or two at a time on each plant, to favor pollination from another one.
Scattered patches of the Swamp or Marsh Buttercup (R. sep-tentrionalis) brighten low, rich meadows also with their large satiny yellow flowers, whose place in the botany even the untrained eye knows at sight. The smooth, spreading plant sometimes takes root at the joints of its branches and sends forth runners, but the stems mostly ascend. The large lower mottled leaves are raised well out of the wet, or above the grass, on long petioles. They have three divisions, each lobed and cleft. From Georgia and Kentucky far northward this buttercup blooms from April to July, opening only a few flowers at a time - a method which may make it less showy, but more certain to secure cross-pollination between distinct plants.
The Yellow Water Buttercup or Crowfoot (R. delphinifolius) - R. multifidus of Gray - found blooming in ponds through the summer months, certainly justifies the family name derived from rana = a frog. Many other members grow in marshes, it is true, but this ranunculus lives after the manner of its namesake, sometimes immersed, sometimes stranded on the muddy shore. Two types of leaves occur on the same stem. Their waving filaments, which make the immersed leaves look fringy, take every advantage of what little carbonic-acid gas is dissolved under the surface. Moreover, they are better adapted to withstand the water's pressure and possible currents than solid blades would be. The floating leaves which loll upon the surface to take advantage of the air and sunlight, expand three, four, or five divisions, variously lobed. On this plant we see one set of leaves perfectly adapted to immersion, and another set to aerial existence. The stem, which may measure several feet in length, roots at the joints when it can. Range from the Mississippi and Ontario eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.
The White Water-Crowfoot (Batrachhim trichophyllum) - Ranunculus aquatilis of Gray - has its fine thread-like leaves entirely submerged; but the flowers, like a whale, as the old conundrum put it, come to the surface to blow. The latter are small, white, or only yellow at the base, where each petal bears a spot or little pit that serves as a pathfinder to the flies. When the water rises unusually high, the blossoms never open, but remain submerged, and fertilize themselves. Seen under water, the delicate leaves, which are little more than forked hairs, spread abroad in dainty patterns; lifted out of the water these flaccid filaments utterly collapse. In ponds and shallow, slow streams, this common plant flowers from June to September almost throughout the Union, the British Possessions north of us, and in Europe and Asia.
The Water Plantain Spearwort (R. obtusiusculus) - R. alis-maefolius of Gray - flecks the marshes from June to August with its small golden flowers, which the merest novice knows must be kin to the buttercup. The smooth, hollow stem, especially thick at the base, likes to root from the lower joints. A peculiarity of the lance-shaped or oblong lance-shaped leaves is that the lower ones have petioles so broad where they clasp the stem that they appear to be long blades suddenly contracted just above their base.