Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Buttercup Family. Part 1. Late winter-early spring

The Ranunculaceae - the Buttercup Family family to us non-botanists - is a strange conglomeration of plants and it is difficult to believe that they all belong to the same family. "Very variable in floral morphology" as Clive Stace puts it (Stace, C.  'New Flora of the British Isles' C.U.P. 1991). But it is variable in other ways too: there are annual herbs, perennial herbs, woody climbers and shrubs. I blew the dust off my copy of his classic work, "Families of Flowering Plants", to find that the late John Hutchinson presents an enormously complex description of the family, necessarily so to take in all the variables.

Two non-technical points may be made: 1. All are to some degree acrid, with some highly poisonous members. 2. The family includes some lovely garden plants.

Some of the Ranunculaceae provide our most welcome late winter/early spring flowers. The Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, I have spoken of before, e.g "Burning off Breakfast" on 1st April. A close relative is, as I write, in flower near to the main village store; this is Green Hellebore, Helleborus viridis, otherwise known as Bear's Foot.

Green Hellebore in a garden adjacent to
Byfield's Co-op store. 4 February, 2014

The Green Hellebore is native to Northamptonshire but is very rare. The best place to see it is Walton Grounds, near Kings Sutton where, according to Gent and Wilson ("The Flora of Northamptonshire..." 2012) "there are in excess of 100 flowering plants". With its lovely cupped flowers I prefer it to the more popular Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis. Both species are highly poisonous.

Helleborus x hybridus.  Byfield
19 February, 2014

Hybridists have had great fun with Hellebores in recent decades and some striking plants are now available under the general name of Helleborus x hybridus. Here in Byfield Angela Tiffin's garden contains some nice examples which she allowed me to photograph. The first example may be H. "White Spot" (There are several similar cultivars). The purple freckling is due to the presence of anthocyanins.

Another Hellebore in Angela's garden. Byfield,
 19 February, 2014  (The scarf is not significant!)

This lovely primrose yellow form may be "Mardi Gras" but, again, several similar cultivars are available. Here the yellow coloration is caused by flavenoids.

If I have a quarrel with Hellebores it is because they receive few insect visitors. Early bees will call in for the nectar but I have only witnessed such visits occasionally.

Also currently in flower (4 February) is Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. Even a cursory glance at the flowers shows the affinity with Hellebores and Linnaeus called it Helleborus hyemalis.

Winter Aconites, Church Street, Byfield
4 February, 2014

This species is not native to Britain yet it 
frequently escapes to become naturalised. As a consequence it is probably commoner than Green Hellebore. With a whorl of sessile leaves forming a ruff beneath each flower it is a charming and deservedly popular plant. 

Oddly enough, the yellow 'petals' are not true petals at all but are coloured sepals performing the function of petals. A closer look shows the numerous stamens within the cup of sepals. This situation is common throughout the family; when it is not clear whether a structure is a sepal or a petal, the term 'tepal' is often used.

A carpet of Celandines; Byfield Playing Fields

Another early flowerer is the Celandine. Ranunculus ficaria. Although it is placed, with other buttercups, in the genus Ranunculus it is rather an awkward fit. Most other buttercups have five sepals; the Celandine has only three so for this, plus a few other less obvious differences, many botanists in the early part of the 20th century preferred the name Ficaria verna. Celandine, Pilewort, Golden Guineas - the plant has numerous common names. I have written further about this species in my blog for 29 January, 2013, "Pilewort and the doctrine of signatures". Tiny though it is, the brilliant glossy yellow of its petals have attracted people throughout the ages. For how many centuries, I wonder, have children held these flowers under a friend's chin asking, "Do you like butter?" Certainly it caught the attention of William Wordsworth, for he refers to the flower in three of his poems. Here is one:  


                                  Pansies, lilies, kingcups, daisies,
                                  Let them live upon their praises;
                                  Long as there's a sun that sets,
                                  Primroses will have their glory; 
                                  Long as there are violets,
                                  They will have a place in story:
                                  There's a flower that shall be mine,
                                  'Tis the little Celandine.

As if you haven't suffered enough I intend to write a second blog on the Buttercup Family: Mid spring to high summer.   

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