This little lad led me a merry chase and it took two weeks to identify it. If you walk along the Back Mouintain Trail this small — 6 inch — plant is everywhere but the flower is tiny, tiny, tiny, about the size of a small pea.
That, I think, is why I got so confused, because it turns out to be a member of the buttercup family and my thoughts of buttercups are always big, showy, glossy and bright, bright.
Well ranunculus abortivus — known by the two confounding names of either Small flowered crowfoot or kidney leaved buttercup — is the classic exceotion to the rule.
the long excerpt that follows, on the edibility of buttercups, is interesting reading, I think.
edible realm. Potential famine food. I also learned at an early age they grow in wet places such as near quicksand.
Note the kidney-shaped lower leaves of the Ranuculus abortivus.
The only use for our buttercups was the childhood game of holding the yellow blossom under someone’s chin to see if they “liked” butter. The chin always lights up with a yellow glow. It took scientists a century to figure out why.
Buttercups, like horseradish, engage in chemical warfare. In horseradish the heat one tastes comes from crushing cells that hold two different chemicals apart which are only peppery when they combine. This is to discourage consumption by me, thee and the denizens of nature. The buttercup is similar in that the offending chemical, a glycoside called Ranunculin, is not a problem until the plant’s cells are crushed. Then an almost instant enzyme reaction turning Ranuculin into Protoanemonin, a bitter, irritating, yellow oil. The animals most bothered by buttercups are grazing cows then horses, sheep and pigs, the latter two sometimes suffering paralysis. Humans are rarely poisoned by buttercups because they taste so bad. It is not fatal in small amounts but a significant irritant that can make you ill with gastric distress.
Ranunculus ficaria, the Fig Buttercup
So, which part is toxic? The entire plant: Sap, flowers, seeds, and leaves but the greatest concentration is in the yellow flowers, next are the shoots which have one-sixth as much. However, dried the plant can be eaten by cows. Heat also destroys the toxin. According to the late poisonous plant expert John M.Kingsbury, “as far as has been determined they [Buttercups) all contain the same toxic principle, although in varying amounts, and produce an equivalent syndrome.” Thus our goal is to use species that have small amounts and/or which can be easily removed. R. sceleratus has 2.5% Protoanemonin (dry weight basis) and R. bulbosa 1.45%. R. repens has only 0.27%.
Ranunculus ficaria bulbils also grow in the leaf axils.
Which ones have been consumed? Ranunculus abortivus (leaves boiled) Ranunculus acris (leaves boiled) Ranunculus aquatilis (entire plant boiled) Ranunculus bulbosus (roots, much boiled or after drying, young flowers pickled, ) Ranunculus californicus (seeds parched and pulverized, there are about 30 per pod and are approximately 18% protein, 26% oil) Ranunculus cynbalaria (mature leaves boiled) Ranunculus edulis (tubers, young stems and leaves boiled) Ranunculus ficaria (young leaves eaten raw in salads, bleached stems cooked and eaten, bulbils — both leaf axils and roots — cooked with meat and eaten, flower buds substituted for capers) Ranunculus inamoenus (roots cooked) Ranunculus lapponicus (leaves and stems boiled) Ranunculus occidentalis var. eisenii (seeds parched) Ranunculus occidentalis var. rattanii (seeds parched) Ranunculus pallasii (shoots and young roots boiled) Ranunculus polyanthemos (leaves pickled first in salt water then added to cheese) Ranunculus reptans (roots cooked on hot rocks) Ranunculous repens (leaves boiled, flowers pickled after boiling) Ranunculus sativus (raw stems eaten as is) and Ranunculus sceleratus (leaves boiled and or fermented.) R. acris, R. bulbosa, R. edulis, R. ficaria, R. repens, and R. sceleratus were introduced from Europe.
Among the Native Americans who consumed buttercups in various ways were the: Cherokee, Gosiute, Miwok, Neeshenam, Iroquois, Acoma, Inuktitut (Eskimos) Keres, Laguna, Mendocino, Pomo, Hesquiat, Makah, Quileute, and Costanoan.
Pliny the Elder
The genus name, Ranunculus, is Dead Latin for small frog. Pliny the Elder, 23-79 AD, used that name for the buttercup which should tell you man has been familiar with the plant family for a long time. Farmers long ago thought cows eating buttercups would improve the color of their butter. Some farmers even rubbed the yellow blossoms on the udders. Considering the flowers can be irritating that probably did not work out well. However, a tea made from buttercups and poured on the ground drives earthworms to the surface. The yellow flowers yield a light fawn dye if alum is used as a mordant, green with chrome as the mordant, and yellow with tin as the mordant. Mordants set the color on the fabric.