Be under ev’ry step you tread – Dorset’s buttercups
Nick Woods looks at Dorset’s surprising variety of buttercups
Published in April ’16
The poet William Barnes captured spring in the Dorset countryside and the abundance of our buttercups, or ‘gil’cups’, as he called them in the poem simply titled ‘May':
‘…An birds do twitter vrom the spray
O’bushes deck’d wi’ snow-white may
An gil’cups, wi’ the deaisy bed,
Be under ev’ry step you tread’
The buttercup remains a common plant, known to almost everyone and children still hold the flowers under each other’s chins to see who likes butter. Indeed the plant is probably so familiar that few give it a second glance. Not many know that there are actually eight different types of buttercup found in Dorset and although one, the Creeping buttercup, is found almost everywhere another, the Corn buttercup, has declined almost to extinction. The commoner buttercups, growing in countless thousands, can be a significant feature of the landscape whilst other, less showy plants, give clues to the history of our fields and woodlands. If you get a bit closer it is easy to tell the commoner buttercups apart and then to spot the scarcer types in the more specialist habitats they occupy. In your garden there is a good chance you will come across the creeping buttercup, often a low-growing weed in lawns, well able to survive regular mowing. This plant usually has leaves with paler markings and only slightly divided; it also has a furrowed flower stalk. Almost as common is the meadow buttercup often with darker, more divided leaves and an un-furrowed flower stalk. It generally grows taller and is often found in hay meadows cut much less frequently. These two buttercups are our commonest.
Almost as widespread as these two plants is the bulbous buttercup, which is distinguished by its swollen stem base and downturned sepals (the protective scales around the developing flower).
As with many closely-related plants each tends to do best in a slightly different habitat – it has even been observed that, in ridge-and-furrow grassland (i.e. land previously ploughed but long put back to grass), the Bulbous buttercup may do best on the tops of the ridges (the driest habitat), the Meadow buttercup on the sides of ridges and the Creeping buttercup in the damper areas – the bottom of the furrows. A scarcer type, the hairy buttercup also has downturned sepals but lacks the bulb-like stem base and, in Dorset, is largely restricted to disturbed ground around Poole, in Purbeck and around Weymouth.
The small-flowered buttercup is one that does not make a big visual impact in the landscape with its tiny flowers. It is found in Dorset on bare and disturbed ground near the coast. In fact if you have walked the coast path you will have quite likely trod on it without even noticing it. Two other buttercups also occupy more restricted habitats.
The Goldilocks buttercup is, appropriately enough, a characteristic plant of old woodland and is most frequent in the west and north of the county. Its upper leaves are very finely divided and the flowers are often incomplete with petals ‘missing’ or not fully developed. In contrast the celery-leaved buttercup is a plant of open wet and often muddy places. In addition to the characteristic leaves, the central part of the flower elongates as it matures giving it a distinctive appearance.
A number of other plants from the buttercup family are also found in wet places: lesser and greater spearwort have undivided almost grass-like leaves and, in contrast, the marsh marigold or kingcup has big rounded leaves and forms large clumps in wet meadows and woodland. Also closely related are the water-crowfoots, white-flowered plants of ponds and streams, which, despite the difference in petal colour, have flowers with the same structure as the buttercups. Another common buttercup-like plant of shady places in spring, the lesser celandine, produces yellow flowers with petals that are narrower and more numerous than in typical buttercups.
Despite the well-known association of the yellow flowers with butter, the name buttercup seems only to have been in common use since the eighteenth century. ‘Gilcup’, the name used by William Barnes being much older. Also largely lost are some other traditions and folklore associated with these common plants.
Another old west country name, ‘Crazy’ may well go back to ancient accounts linking the plant to the curing of lunatics, though there is also a 19th-century reference to children being told the smell of buttercups would make them mad.
There is a certain irony in the association of buttercups and butter – cows are said to avoid eating some types due to the irritant quality of the plant. It is also said that the chemicals responsible for this can cause blistering of the skin and that beggars would rub the plant on their skin producing sores to generate sympathy and, hopefully, cash. A particularly desperate related use of the buttercup was reputedly the treatment of Bubonic Plague; the ground-up roots of some types of the plant apparently being applied to the skin.
Although, overall, ‘the buttercup’ remains one of our commonest wildflowers, one type, the Corn buttercup, has all but disappeared from Dorset. It may never have been common, though a post war account of the county stated it was ‘occasionally abundant’. As an arable weed, it is regarded as an ‘archaeophyte’, that is a plant associated with man, probably introduced by early agriculturalists. It is reputed to have been introduced to Britain in Roman times and become a significant agricultural weed. Across the country it has now declined so much due to modern agricultural practices that it is officially in danger of extinction. However, many of our other buttercups remain widespread.
Some, such as the Goldilocks buttercup can provide subtle information about the continuity of woodland habitats. However, others make a more dramatic, if sometimes unappreciated, contribution to the landscape. Perhaps it needs the artist’s eye to recognise this? Contemporary Dorset artist Duncan Harris seems to have captured this in his painting ‘Buttercup Meadow’. In such places buttercups remain ‘…under ev’ry step you tread’. ◗