Buttercups and Daisies: Beautiful Wildflowers of Spring and Summer
Buttercups and daisies are two of my favourite plants. They were the first wildflowers that I learned to recognize as a child. My friends and I would often pick the flowers and press them between sheets of newspaper to dry them. Sometimes we would hold a shiny buttercup under someone else’s chin, looking for the golden reflection that indicated that they liked butter. We would join the daisies together to make daisy chains and wear them around various parts of our body as jewelry.
My childhood was spent in Britain, but here in British Columbia the buttercups and daisies still greet me each spring and summer. I’m always happy when I see the first flowers emerge. The buttercups have a beautiful golden glow. The daisies look very cheerful with their yellow centres and white petals. I enjoy photographing both plants. Unless otherwise noted, the photos in this article were taken by me.
Tall and Creeping Buttercups
Buttercups are common plants in coastal British Columbia. As their name suggests, their flower is often cup-like, although sometimes it has a flatter appearance. There are hundreds of different species of buttercups, all belonging to the genus Ranunculus and the family Ranunculaceae. The flowers of many buttercups are yellow. Others have white petals and a yellow centre. Some have orange or red flowers.
Buttercups are generally herbaceous perennials. A common species in my area is the tall buttercup (Ranunculus acris). It's called "tall" to distinguish it from the creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), which also occurs in my area. Both species were introduced to North America from Europe. The flower stem of the tall buttercup sometimes reaches a height of three feet. The creeping buttercup reaches a maximum height of one foot but is usually shorter.
Flowers, Stems, and Leaves
The flowers of the tall buttercup are a bright and glossy yellow. They generally have five petals but may have as many as seven. The centre of the flower has multiple green pistils (female structures) surrounded by multiple and longer yellow stamens (male structures). The flower stem is hairy and usually branches to form several flowers.
The leaves of the tall buttercup are broad, lobed, and toothed. They are also hairy and produce a lovely soft sensation when they are lightly stroked. The leaves of the creeping buttercup are less dissected than those of their taller relative and often have pale green patches on their surface.
A Toxin in Buttercups
As beautiful as they are, fresh buttercup plants are actually poisonous. The flowers, seeds, and leaves are all toxic. They can produce blisters in the mouths of animals and children who try to eat them. Animals and people usually discard the irritating plant at this point, so dangerous poisoning is rare. If the plant is retained and swallowed, it will irritate the lining of the digestive tract and other mucous membranes. It may also produce more blisters and a variety of other symptoms, such as excessive salivation, nausea, colic, bloody diarrhea, difficulty breathing, convulsions, and paralysis.
The poisonous substance in buttercups is called ranunculin. This chemical belongs to a family known as glycosides. When the buttercup plant is crushed, as it is when an animal chews it, an enzyme converts ranunculin into protoanemonin. This is a bitter tasting and volatile yellow oil that responsible for the irritating effect of buttercup plants. A person's skin may become red and irritated if they crush a plant. I don't remember being irritated by buttercups when I picked them as a child, but I suppose it must have happened sometimes.
Dried buttercups are not poisonous because the ranunculin dissipates during the drying process. This means that animals can safely eat hay that contains the dried plants. It's important to be certain that the plants are completely dry, though.
Reflective and Glowing Flowers
Buttercups are yellow because they contain pigments called carotenoids. These pigments absorb most of the colours in light but reflect the yellow part of the spectrum, making the flowers appear yellow to a viewer. The petals owe their beautiful shine to their enhanced reflective abilities. The shiny appearance is thought to attract pollinating insects from far away. One Cambridge University researcher suggests that the shine on buttercup petals may look like nectar to bees.
Researchers have discovered that buttercup petals also reflect ultraviolet light very well. We can't see this light, but insects such as the bees that pollinate the buttercup can. The bees fly towards the UV light while they forage for pollen and nectar.
Buttercups are loved for their ability to make skin glow yellow when the flower is held under the chin. The glow and the link to liking bright yellow butter was popular in my childhood. Butter was considered to be a wholesome food by some people at that time. Some people today have the same opinion.
Why Do Buttercups Make Skin Glow Yellow?
Physicists at Cambridge University in England have discovered how the yellow skin colour is produced by buttercups. The petals have a layer of flat epidermal cells on their surface. These cells contain the carotenoids that reflect yellow light and absorb light of other colours. The very flat nature of the cells enhances reflection. There is more to a buttercup's reflective abilities than this, however.
Unlike other common wildflowers, the petals have a second epidermal layer under the first one. The two layers are separated by air. The second layer of epidermal cells and the air layer in the petals reflect light that manages to pass through the first layer of epidermis. Some light therefore passes through the carotenoid pigments twice–once as it passes into the petal and again as it travels out. This gives the flower a rich yellow colour as viewed by our eyes. The enhanced ability of buttercups to reflect light produces a glow on surfaces such as the skin under the chin.
The Daisy Plant
My father was the naturalist in my family. He taught me my first scientific name—Bellis perennis. This is the name of a common European daisy that has spread to other areas, including the part of North America where I live. In Latin, Bellis means pretty and perennis means everlasting or eternal. The word "daisy" is thought to have arisen from the phrase "day's eye", referring to the fact that the daisy flower opens up during the day but closes at night. The common daisy is also known as the lawn daisy and the English daisy.
Like buttercups, the common daisy is a herbaceous perennial. The flower is born on a long flower stalk which rises above the basal rosette of leaves. The leaves grow close to the ground and are spatulate, or spoon-shaped.
In my area, most daisies begin to bloom in spring before buttercups do and are always a welcome sight. In one spot near my home, though, a few flowers are often visible in winter, which is a mild season where I live. Bellis perennis is sometimes able to flower in winter if the conditions are suitable. The winter blooms in my part of the world are nowhere near as abundant or as vibrant as the spring ones, though.
A Time Lapse Video of Growing Daisies
A Composite Inflorescence
Daisies belong to the family Asteraceae, also known as the Compositae family. The latter name refers to the fact that that although the flower head looks like it's made of just one flower, it actually consists of many miniature flowers. These flowers are of two types. The yellow disk at the centre of the flower head is made of many individual disk flowers. Each white petal is really the single petal of an individual ray flower extending from the disk. The petals of the ray flowers are sometimes tinged with pink.
Although the flower head of a daisy is technically known as an inflorescence because it's made of multiple flowers, or florets as they are properly called, the inflorescence is more commonly referred to as a flower. Like many other people, I follow this convention.
Unlike the poisonous buttercup, common daisies are edible. The young leaves, flowers, and buds can be eaten raw or cooked, but the older leaves are bitter. The plant parts are used in salads, soups, and infusions. Some people like to pickle the flower buds in vinegar and use them like capers.
If you decide to collect daisies to eat or to make infusions, remember to be absolutely certain of your plant identification. There are several plants that can be confused with common daisies. Other types of wild daisies and daisy-like flowers bloom in spring and summer in addition to the common daisy. In addition, don't pick plants from areas likely to have been contaminated by pesticides or passing traffic. The common daisy is considered to be an invasive weed in some areas and may well have been treated with herbicides.
In folklore, daisies are frequently described as having the ability to heal wounds and bruises. The plant has traditionally been used for this purpose in the past. Even today, some herbalists make numerous claims about the healing abilities of the common daisy. At the moment, scientific evidence for these claims is lacking. This doesn't necessarily mean that the claims are untrue. It's premature to conclude that the plant is a useful wound treatment, though.
A daisy poultice or ointment shouldn't be used to treat open wounds. Anything that comes into contact with an open or bleeding wound must be sterile.
How to Make a Daisy Chain
Daisy chains are fun for children to make. (Some adults enjoy making them, too.) Joining daisies in a ring creates a chain that can be used as a bracelet, a necklace, or a crown. Provided lots of daisies are blooming in an area, the population won't be hurt if a small number of flowers are picked.
The process of making a chain is simple.
- Pick some daisies.
- Make a slit in one flower’s stem with a fingernail. If your nails aren't long enough, use a knife or scissors. (Be careful with sharp edges.)
- Thread a second daisy's stem through the hole in the first stem.
- Make a slit in the second flower’s stem.
- Thread a third daisy's stem through the hole in the second stem.
- Repeat the process until the chain is the desired length.
- To finish the chain, make a second slit in the first daisy's stem and thread the last flower’s stem through it.
Spring and Summer Wildflowers
Buttercups and daisies have been an important part of my summer for many years. I love looking at wildflowers on my walks and I enjoy photographing them. The rich, lustrous glow of buttercup petals and the cheery, vibrant appearance of the contrasting yellow centres and white rays of daisies add a great deal of pleasure to a spring or summer walk. The flowers are a beautiful sight and a lovely link to my childhood.
- Creeping buttercup and toxicity facts from the government of King County in Washington
- Physicists explain buttercups and yellow skin from Wired Magazine
- Secret of the buttercup's shine from The Guardian
- Bellis perennis information from Kew Gardens
- Facts about the common daisy from The Wildlife Trusts
Questions & Answers
How do we care for buttercups? We have ours in a pot on our patio and it has no flowers.
I’m interested in buttercups growing in the wild. I’ve never grown cultivated ones, so I'm afraid I can’t give you care tips. A plant nursery or plant store in your area could probably help you encourage your plant to flower, especially if they know the type of buttercup that you have in the pot.Helpful 1
© 2012 Linda Crampton