In early April, I promised to write about a species that I considered to be my arch-nemesis: Ranunculus repens. I could not find a photo that conveyed the sense of misery that creeping buttercup elicits in me, so instead I chose a truly beautiful photo taken by Tero Laakso (aka talaakso@Flickr) of a native field of buttercups in Finland. Consider my choice of photos a self-directed therapy. Thanks for the “help”, Tero!
Imagine this scene: it is 6:45 PM, and I am crawling through 30m long rows of garlic. My knees are aching, and my clothes are soaked from the light drizzle that has been falling on me since I started weeding early this morning. My wrists are burning from the repetitive motion of digging and pulling the Ranunculus repens that has infested my half-acre garlic field. I know that I am not getting all of the roots, and that any little fragment that I leave behind will soon re-grow. I can see, also, that I have put this off a little too long; the creeping buttercup has already started to set seed, guaranteeing that no matter how thorough my weeding is today, this field will be full of buttercup for years to come.
My young son, who has been holding buttercup flowers to our chins to show that we love butter, grows tired of this game, and pops the yellow flower into his mouth.
“Spit it out!”, I yell, imagining the nausea and spasms that my son will soon suffer–the result of an enzyme reaction that causes the ranunculin found in buttercups to turn into the toxin protoanemonin. Thankfully, my son spits the flower out of his own accord, put-off more by its bitterness than by my commands. Finally, I accept that it is time to go inside for dinner, the garlic field only half-weeded. Exhausted, I drag myself and my son into the house, carefully peeling off my protoanemonin-covered gloves, and set about making (a very buttery) dinner.
Type in a search for Ranunuculus repens, and many of the first results detail the noxious qualities of this perennial herb or discuss how to get rid of it (not an easy task). Creeping buttercup overwinters as a rosette, then sends out stolons from the leaf axils in the spring. These stolons form roots at the nodes, and by the winter the stolon connections have atrophied, forming physiologically-independent ramets (clones). In this way, a few individual plants can quickly form large colonies. A single rosette has been reported to produce 35 rooting nodes, with 23 of those flowering in the first year, under ideal conditions. I suspect my soggy garlic patch was much better suited to the growth of Ranunculus repens than to Allium sativum.
A closer look at creeping buttercup does reveal some positive qualities, though I may be loathe to acknowledge them. Linnaeus himself gave this species a rather charming name (ranunculus=”frog”, repens=”creeping”). This name refers both to the wet ground that creeping buttercup prefers and to the way that it spreads. My heart softens a little for Ranunuculus repens when I imagine it as a little green frog creeping across the edge of a pond. The golden, 5-petaled flowers are undoubtedly pretty. They are also well-loved by honey-bees and other pollinators. Perhaps, had I been a beekeeper rather than a vegetable farmer, I would be singing the praise of this tenacious, spreading species.