By Matt Gibson
According to folklore and southern legend, if you hold a buttercup underneath your chin, and a yellow reflection appears on your skin, it means that you like butter (but really, who in their right minds doesn’t like butter?). Scientists will more likely tell you that the glistening bright yellow reflection that the mid-summer buttercup bloom produces, is a naturally occurring phenomenon intended to attract pollinators. This is probably what makes the ranunculus, more commonly known as the buttercup, one of the best flowers for attracting pollinators in the world. The buttercup is also a natural at attracting the rays of the sun, which in turn, brings about more pollinators.
On cooler days, the petals of the buttercup form a satellite dish-like shape, collecting solar energy and focusing it towards their core, which heats up the reproductive organs of the flower as well as the pollen in the stamens, making them all the more inviting to birds, bees, and other pollinating insects.
Buttercup Flower Varieties
Buttercup flowers are a member of the Ranunculus genus, which consists of over 400 different species, most are either gold or yellow in hue, though there are pink, white, red and orange varieties as well. These shiny, yellow-gold, five-petaled, half hearty perennials are commonly seen brightening up hillsides, valleys, flower beds and rock gardens in five of the seven continents of the world, all but Africa and Antarctica. Though there are far too many different varieties to list here, the following three are the ones most commonly grown in gardens today.
The Persian Buttercup (Ranunculus Asiaticus) are native to Asia and prefer zones 8-11. These massive flowers grow to 12 feet tall, producing one 3 to 5 inch semi double to fully double bloom that looks similar to the peony blossom.
The Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus Ficaria) thrives in zones 6-9 and hails from Europe and East Asia. This aggressive weed-like perennial produces bright yellow buttercup blooms that rise above dense mats of heart-shaped, dark green foliage in the spring.
The Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus Repens Pleniflorus) also thrives in zones 6-9 and can be invasive as well. Fully double, bright yellow, one inch button shaped blossoms pop above lush, glossy, wide patches of dark green foliage.
Growing Conditions for Buttercups
Buttercups prefer full sun to partial shade. They are more particular about soil preferences than most flowers, needing a light, cool, well-drained soil. If you’re growing buttercups in a particularly warm and sunny climate, mulch around the base of the plants to help keep the soil at a cooler temperature.
How to Plant Buttercups
Though buttercups are commonly grown from both seed or roots, many find them particularly hard to cultivate from seed. For this reason, most gardeners choose to grow these flowers from a division of the roots. Divide them in spring or fall, or purchase young plants from your local gardening store. If growing from root, submerge tubers and plant with roots pointed downwards about 1 to 2 inches deep, depending on bulb size.
Care of Buttercups
Fertilize the soil with a general purpose fertilizer in the spring and repeat once per month for optimal bloomage and growth. Though you will certainly want to water buttercups during extended dry periods or droughts, they are basically a care free plant, requiring little to no attention outside of fertilization and occasional watering.
In the fall in cold weather climates, add a layer of mulch to help protect the root system during the winter months. For yearly display, and for safety measures, you may want to pull out the tubers at the end of the season once most of the foliage has died back. Store them in a dark dry location until spring and start them up again indoors in containers.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Buttercups
Insect and plant diseases are not a common problem for buttercups, but you may experience some disease problems if you are experiencing very wet or humid weather.
Buttercups for Indoor Bouquets
Cut the large blossoms off of buttercups for indoor display, especially the double blossoms, which look similar to small peonies. Cut back the stems all the way to the ground so that the leaves will naturally hide the cut ends as new blooms sprout up in their place.
Aside from the butter lovers legend, the buttercup, which grows wild throughout much of North America, is steeped in a wide array of myth and symbolism. The name ranunculus comes from an ancient Greek legend, wherein a young boy of the same name who wore yellow and green silks and was known for his beautiful singing voice, was once singing for a group of wood nymphs. During the song, Ranunculus became mystified and entranced by his own voice and died suddenly. To honor his memory, Orpheus transformed him into the buttercup, which has been known as Ranunculus forever after.
The buttercup is known to symbolize humility, neatness, childishness, and charm. Even though buttercups are toxic to cows, another legend of how the buttercup got its name, is due to the milk that cows who graze on buttercups were thought to produce. Another legend says that the coyote lost his eyes to a swooping eagle, and decided to replace them with buttercups.
The bright yellow flowers are still referred to as coyote’s eyes in many areas of the US. Another legend paints the scene of an old mizer crossing a field with a satchel full of gold. Supposedly, fairies stopped the old man and asked him for a gift of alms. When he refused, the fairies cut a hole in his satchel with a blade of grass. As the man continued across the field, the coins slipped out of his bag and were lost in the grass, where they turned to buttercup flowers.
Want to Learn More About Growing Buttercups?
Here’s an in depth video tutorial on how to grow buttercups:
Check out this tutorial specific to planting the persian species of buttercups:
This video shows you how to make an elaborate indoor cut buttercup bouquet: