Hold a buttercup flower under your chin. If your chin glows yellow, you love butter. That is according to a classic childhood game anyway. Recent research explored the cellular structure of buttercup petals and revealed the anatomical reason behind their yellow glow. Apart from helping to warm the flower’s sex organs, this glow is thought to draw in pollinating insects to ensure proper pollination.
Now take the fresh green leaves of buttercups, crush them up, and rub them against your skin. On second thought, DON’T DO THAT! This is not a childhood game and should absolutely be avoided…unless, of course, you derive some sort of pleasure from painful blisters.
Buttercups, also commonly known as crowfoots, are in the genus Ranunculus and the family Ranunculaceae. Ranunculus consists of a few hundred species and is a common group of annual and perennial herbaceous plants with alternately arranged, palmately veined leaves that are either entire, lobed, or finely divided. Buttercup flowers are usually yellow (sometimes white) with 5 petals (sometimes 3 or 7) that are either borne singly or in loose clusters. The flowers are complete, having both male and female reproductive structures that are easily identifiable. Flowering usually occurs in the spring.
Ranunculus species are found throughout the world. Common habitats include moist woods, meadows, open fields, wetlands and other riparian areas, as well as drier sites like roadsides and neglected, urban lots. Several species are commonly grown as ornamentals, and others are common weeds in natural areas, urban landscapes, and agricultural fields.
All buttercups contain a compound called ranunculin. When the leaves are crushed or bruised, ranunculin breaks down to form an acrid, toxic oil called protoanemonin. Contact with this oil causes dermatitis. Symptoms occur within an hour of contact and include burning and itching along with rashes and blisters. When the leaves are chewed, blisters can form on the lips and face. If swallowed, severe gastrointestinal irritation can follow, accompanied by dizziness, spasms, and paralysis. The toxic oil is also irritating to the eyes.
Ranunculus species vary in their levels of this toxic compound, and individual plants are said to be more toxic in the spring when they are actively growing and flowering. Protoanemonin breaks down further into an innocuous compound called anemonin, so dead and dried out plants are generally safe. Commonly encountered (and particularly toxic) species in North America include tall buttercup (R. acris), cursed buttercup (R. sceleratus), creeping buttercup (R. repens), littleleaf buttercup (R. arbortivus), and sagebrush buttercup (R. glaberrimus). Bulbous buttercup (R. bulbosus) has bulbous roots that are toxic when fresh but are said to be edible after they are well boiled or completely dried.
The toxicity of Ranunculus species seems to be more of an issue for livestock than for humans. Grazing animals tend to avoid it since it tastes so bad. Those that do eat it exhibit responses similar to humans – blistering around the mouth, gastrointestinal issues, etc. In The Book of Field and Roadside, John Eastman writes about Ranunculus acris: “Cattle usually avoid the plant – its acrid juices can blister their mouths – though they can also develop something like an addiction to it, consuming it until it kills them.” Buttercups becoming dominant in pastures and rangelands is often a sign of overgrazing.
Despite – and likely due to – their toxicity, buttercups have a long history of medicinal uses. Civilizations in many parts of the world have used the leaves and roots of the plant to treat numerous ailments including rheumatism, arthritis, cuts, bruises, and even hemorrhoids. A report published in 2011 describes three patients in Turkey that had applied poultices of corn buttercup (R. arvensis) to parts of their body to treat rheumatism. The patients were treated for chemical burns caused by the applications. The report concludes by advising against treatments “whose therapeutic effects have not been proven yet by scientific studies.”
In The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms, buttercups are listed among plant species that are skin and eye irritants, honey poisons, and milk poisons (see Appendices 3, 4, and 5). Other genera in the buttercup family may also contain high levels of protoanemonin, including popular ornamentals like Clematis, Helleborus, Anemone, and Pulsatilla. Thus, the moral of this story: handle these plants with care.