Ranunculus Is a Toxic Beauty With a Doozy of a Name

By: Carrie Tatro  | 

Ranunculus
Yellow ranunculus (Ranunculus asiaticus) are also commonly known as buttercups, a name which may derive from the false idea that the plants give butter its characteristic yellow hue when in fact they are toxic to cows and people alike. aimintang/Getty Images

What's nerve-wracking at a spelling bee but beloved by bees, hard to say three times really fast, poison if you eat it, once used to cure leprosy and mange and oh-so-gobsmacking in a bridal bouquet? Answer: ranunculus, ranunculus, ranunculus.

A native of Southwest Asia, ranunculus was first introduced to Europe (along with the anemone and the tulip) in the 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The genus name Ranunculus is Latin for "little frog," likely because the tuberous little buttercup's natural habitat is near streams and other moist places where little frogs might nab a pad and make a home.

"The name 'buttercup' is thought to come from the yellow color of the flower and with over 600 species in the genus, they range from prize cut flowers to pesky lawn weeds. The weedy ones in pastures are particularly troublesome since they are poisonous to livestock and can also be toxic and caustic for humans," Amanda Bennett, VP of Horticulture and Collections at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, says in an email.

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Beware the Toxicity Behind the Beauty

All species of ranunculus are poisonous to both animals and humans. When the leaves of buttercups are crushed or bruised they release a compound called ranunculin that breaks down into an acrid, toxic oil called protoanemonin. Contact with protoanemonin will mess you up in a dermatitis kind of way — causing burning and itching with accompanying rash and blisters. If the leaves are chewed by humans or beasts, blisters may form on the lips and face. The toxic oil is also a serious eye irritant. Swallow some buttercups and you'll find yourself in a world of hurt, including but not limited to symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting, dizziness and even paralysis.

While buttercups vary in levels of toxicity, individual plants are at their most toxic in spring when they're alive and flowering. Dead and dried plants are generally considered safe. The most pernicious culprits in North America include tall buttercup (Ranunculus acris), creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) and cursed buttercup (Ranunculus sceleratus), to name a few. Bulbous buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus), which is considered a potential famine food, has bulbous roots that are caustic when fresh but can be eaten when they're boiled or completely dried.

Native Americans used dried ranunculus in herbal poultices to treat muscle aches and pains and to remove warts. The Italian naturalist, Pliny the Elder, wrote about the beneficial uses of ranunculus in his "The Natural History of Wild Plants" way back in 77 B.C.E.

Ranunculus
An Israeli girl picks flowers in a field of ranunculus in the southern Israeli Kibbutz of Nir Yitzhak during the Jewish holiday of Passover on April 13, 2020.
MENAHEM KAHANA/Getty Images

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Persian Buttercups

"The multi-colored, Persian buttercups are what most people associate with the name Ranunculus. These are undeniably beautiful and know it," says Bennett.

The genus Ranunculus includes hundreds of varieties of flowering annual and herbaceous perennial plants. A member of the ranunculaceae family, it sports the common names buttercup and Persian buttercup (Ranunculus asiaticus). Available year-round in a rainbow of colors, most contemporary florists and top shelf designers routinely use cultivars of Ranunculus asiaticus. It's among the most commonly purchased blooms in the cut flower market, featuring such popular hybrid strains as, 'Aviv,' Telecote,' 'Telecote Red,' 'Flamenco,' 'Bloomingdale' and 'Victoria,' among many others.

Buxom cool-weather beauties, Ranunculus asiaticus is renowned for its voluminous painterly blooms and its delicate petals that look like crepe paper origami. And it has a long and happy vase life of up to seven days. Think spectacular centerpiece!

Ranunculus
Ranunculus, also known as Persian buttercup (Ranunculus asiaticus) can come in all different colors and shapes and is known for its stunning, painterly blooms.
Hal Beral/Getty Images

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Is Ranunculus an Annual or a Perennial?

The answer to that question depends entirely upon where you live. A tuberous rooted plant, ranunculus is winter hardy, or perennial, in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8 to 10. Gardeners in these regions should plant bulbs in the fall for spring flowers. In colder Zones like 4 to 7, ranunculus won't survive the winter outdoors, and is considered an annual, with bulbs planted in spring for late summer blooms.

"Ranunculus prefers sunny, very well-drained soil in an area that isn't too hot but isn't too cold, and they do not like humidity," Bennett explains. "Many gardeners grow them as potted annuals."

Magnificent to behold, the brilliant-colored ranunculus makes a really big tadoo as a spring container garden plant. It can flower for up to five weeks, with individual blooms lasting from three to seven days in cooler climes.

In floriography, ranunculus symbolizes attraction and charm. They're also highly prized by floral artisans as the perfect flower to decorate with or give as bedazzling tokens of your love and admiration on special occasions like weddings and anniversaries. Also associated with childishness and cheerfulness, the dear little buttercup makes a pretty funny muse for a song too.

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