“Poor little Buttercup!” Little Buttercup sold her wares to sailors aboard the H.M.S. Pinafore: that’s what Gilbert and Sullivan tell us. And she had a secret.
Now a “buttercup” usually is thought of as a yellow-flowered plant that blooms in the spring and often has dissected, or cut-up, leaves. All the buttercups of the world (there are lots) belong to the genus Ranunculus, and the name of this genus is used as the base for the name of the plant family … thus, the buttercup family is the Ranunculaceae.
Most of them grow in wet places, and indeed the word Ranunculus means “little frog,” an allusion to a soggy environment.
The buttercup family occurs nearly worldwide, and most of its members are herbs with showy flowers. Buttercups themselves are a part of this family, of course, along with quite a number of popular garden plants such as wind-flowers, columbines, clematis, delphiniums, monks-hood, nigella (or “love-in-a-mist”), Lenten rose and peonies.
The flowers of these various groups include white, pink, red, blue, purple or yellow, basically offering every color there is. In many of these plants, the flowers have no petals and it is their sepals that are bright and colorful. This week’s Mystery Plant is not a buttercup, but it is one of the members of this family.
It is a common wildflower with a broad distribution, found from eastern Canada well into the plains, then down south to Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia. In the eastern States, it mostly is a plant of woods in the mountains and Piedmont regions, usually not too common toward the coast.
It is a beautiful perennial plant, rising upward nearly 3 feet tall sometimes with large, dark green leaves mostly toward the base. The leaf blades are prominently cleft, or divided, into a number of toothy lobes.
Flowering time begins in the early summer and continues for several weeks. Each flower has five prominent sepals, instead of petals, and these are white or a bit greenish. Plenty of little stamens will be down there, too, just below an aggregation of tiny green pistils. There can be quite a few of these little pistils, perhaps a hundred or so.
Some time after blooming, the sepals will dry up and fall away and the pistils will swell up a bit, and the whole aggregation will form a head or spike with a prominent cone-like or cylindrical shape. (Maybe it’s more like a thimble.) The little cone starts out firm and hard. But as time goes by, well into autumn, its constituent little achenes become wooly with fuzzy hairs and the whole thing becomes soft and starts to fall apart, disintegrating into a fluffy mass. The wind comes along and poof — all the little achenes take off.
Let me end this essay on a somewhat academic (and to some, a seemingly trivial) note and ask you to recall from your botany class that an achene is not just a seed. An achene is itself a fruit, resulting from a matured pistil, and inside is an ovule which was fertilized: that is where the seed is. The same system is involved for our poor little buttercup. (Maybe that’s her secret.)
(“Thimbleweed,” Anemone virginiana)
John Nelson is the retired curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208.