The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 4 (Poisonous Plants), Chapter 3: Buttercup

Table of Contents

Dear Wood Folk,

Buttercups are one of the first flowering plants I noticed when I moved to Haliburton County, Ontario. They have a reflective shininess to them that makes them pop. Buttercups are common in my yard, and common along the nearest trail. These mostly perennial plants show up in varied terrain. Some species are even aquatic. Their genus is named after an aquatic species perhaps: Ranunculus is Latin for “little frog”.

Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris)
Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris)

These buttercups are related to the black hellebore, which is one of the most poisonous members of the buttercup (ranunculaceae) family.

Not-so Edible Uses of Buttercups

Fresh buttercup parts are all acrid tasting and poisonous. There’s an unstable glucoside in the sap called glycoside ranunculin which converts to toxic protoanemonin when the plant in damaged. This irritating oil will cause possible contact dermatitis, and likely severe blistering and irritation of mucous membranes that come in contact with it including the entire digestive system.

However, because (some of?) the toxins are eliminated by drying and boiling, some species have been consumed as a starvation food. I would file this under ethnobotanical notes rather than a recommendation to prepare and eat it.

Meadow buttercup closeup
Meadow buttercup closeup

The most common buttercup around Haliburton, the nonnative and invasive meadow buttercup (r. acris), is one of the most toxic. Yet its boiled leaves have been consumed as a starvation food. Same for the native small flowered (r. abortivus). As far as natives to Ontario, you’re most likely to find hooked buttercup (r. recurvatus) here. But I’ve found no history of people eating hooked buttercup. We have upwards of a dozen species around Haliburton according to iNat. Identifying specific species isn’t easy.

Medicinal Uses of Buttercups

It has traditional use for warts and as a counter irritant for nerve pain and rheumatism.

Alternative Uses of Spearworts

Yellow flowers produce a sandy dye with alum as a mordant, green with chrome, and yellow with tin.

Hooked buttercup (Ranunculus recurvatus)
Hooked buttercup (Ranunculus recurvatus)

Growing Ranunculus Recurvatus

Many bees and some flies and butterflies will visit native buttercups. Deer and other mammals will leave them alone, but you might spot a turkey or ruffed grouse nipping at the foliage.

Quite a few spearworts and buttercups are native to Ontario, the wet loving native hooked buttercup (r. recurvatus) being the most common in our area. Hooked looks perhaps more like yellow avens than the usual buttercup. Due to its prevalence around Haliburton, collecting seeds to plant is feasible.

Other native buttercups and spearworts may show up in plant nurseries that specialize in native plants.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

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