Ranunculus repens

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.

Ranunculus repens

14 responses to “Ranunculus repens”

  1. Lynne

    Oh, my, the angst! LOL! The adage that “a weed is any plant that grows where it’s not wanted” is so true. I have similar murderous thoughts about Solanum elaeagnifolium (silver-leaved nightshade).

  2. Denis

    In the case of R. repens, since it seems to grow anywhere and every where it’s probably hard to find anyone that doesn’t consider it a weed. It’s in my wetland, lawn, shade, sun… It vies with Glechoma hederacea and several Sonchus species as the most hated weeds in my lawn, along with the Cirsium arvense, Rubus armeniacus, and Cytisus scoparius (at least we don’t have its eviler twin, Ulex europaeus) in the unmown parts.

  3. Natasha

    I do landscape maintenance and so this one is a constant for me. I have, fortunately, found the perfect tool for buttercup in an L-shaped pulling hand hoe. I always keep it sharp and slice through the roots right underneath the crown. No pulling, and nothing left behind to regrow. It’s a hard tool to find but DeWit makes a number of versions, including for left or right hands: “Japanese Hand Hoe”. This has been my favour tool for 20 years. I know this isn’t a gardening blog but I thought I’d offer this up! And another hated weed with a similar underground habit, but with addition of wind-borne seeds, is Hieracium aurantiacum, aka “Red-Orange King Devil”. My hoe works just as well on it if I get at it before the stolons establish themselves.

  4. susan

    Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). My absolute garden nemesis.Try getting rid of that.

  5. Kathy Keeler

    I’m using Ranunculus repens as a ground cover. Yes, its aggressive, but manageable. I think a difference is that I’m in Colorado at 15″ rainfall a year. I water to increase that and to carry my garden plants through rainless months. The creeping buttercup spreads easily but doesn’t take over. It has filled in under one of my trees and I’m looking forward to a burst of yellow any day now. When I read of others hating it, I wonder at the difference between a ground cover and a weed.

  6. marianwhit

    Moneywort Lysimachia nummularia, Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara and Creeping Charlie Glechoma hederacea. Two escaped from hanging baskets on this property and are consuming the riparian habitat and the lawn at an alarming rate in spite of my many days a year fight against them.

  7. Everette Lovell

    Look on the bright side! He you start beekeeping you win whatever happens. You let them work and reap the sweets. Should you ever be weed free you’ll have honey flavoured like a diverse bouquet, else you may have an unwanted ingredient, which mayn’t be so bad. Outgrew catching and playing with bees as a 2-3yr old after three or four stings. I love nature; apiarist that’s an idea. Thanks! Careful with your hoeing.

  8. Sue Webster

    I’m Susan agreeing with Susan! Two forms of bindweed in my garden, by the time you see it around a plant it’s usually too late to eliminate completely.

  9. gerald

    Yes I too have the dreaded buttercup but, not in the raised beds, just around the outside. My main pest weeds are Plantain, Sheppards Purse, Purslane, and Dandelion.

  10. Joey Jechenthal

    I find people who don’t garden (aka pull weeds)can be prone to romanticizing weeds a la Thoreau. Though I still think it’s a pretty plant (as is the Dandelion) I have fought it with more than a few cuss words thrown in.
    Thanks for another great post – this one made my day!

  11. Ron B

    If anyone here is talking about the common perennial bindweed that forms sheets of twining growth in landscape plantings that is correctly Calystegia silvatica.

  12. lhmorrison

    one solution around small veg patch is chop back with shears; leaves leafy mulch behind. perhaps these weeds are green manure growing right where you need it?

  13. Cheryl Henley

    As in the Colorado post above, here in Utah at 5200 feet the buttercup is a controlled invader – it is actually replacing some lawn which I am grateful for, and seems to tolerate mowing too, even quite a bit of dryness which is surprising. It has also filled in under Gambel oaks on a steep rocky area competing fairly successfully with all of that oak suckering. I hate bluegrass most of all, always creeping into my perennial beds! I have carved the grass down to a small area leaving a bit for the sake of our dog.

  14. Tracey

    This lovely little native plant occupies a small section of my garden here in the dry southern portion of SW Alberta. And plantain makes a small home as well, though I am more vigorous in keeping its living quarters reasonably sized!

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