Everything You Need To Know About Buttercups

Most people are familiar with buttercups that grow in the meadow. But “buttercups” is a common name for many plants in the Ranunculus family (Ranunculaceae).

field of buttercup garden flowers

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There are many different types of buttercup plants. There are perennials, annuals, biennials, and even aquatic and rock garden plants. However, the buttercups that we know in the South are often found in meadows and are thought of as weeds. They usually are in the lawn, spread rapidly, and smother other plants. 

These have simple, yellow flowers with five to 10 petals. They are especially bright and glossy. This is because the petals curve inward and are constructed in such a way that they reflect light on to the flower center, thus increasing the heat. This warms the stamens (which produce the pollen), boosts their growth, and increases the chance of fertilization. Also, this warmth attracts the pollinators. Buttercups are considered a source of food for bees and hummingbirds. This reflection is why children like to hold a buttercup flower under their chin. If the reflection on their chins is yellow, it is supposed to mean they like butter.

Ironically, all buttercups are considered poisonous and may cause dermatitis. This is another reason why the meadow buttercups are considered undesirable. Normally buttercups are too bitter for livestock but if food is in short supply, livestock may eat them, producing blisters on lips and mouths. The poisonous compounds make buttercups deer and rabbit resistant. 

However, there is one member of the buttercup family that is very desirable: the Persian buttercup (R. asiaticus). Favored by cut flower growers and florists, the Persian buttercups are beautiful flowers that can be grown by home gardeners.

Types of Buttercups

The following are a few species that are commonly found in the wild in the South or can be grown as a garden plant and purchased commercially.

R. acris

  • Meadow buttercup, found in wildflower meadows and grasslands.
  • Five-petaled, yellow flowers with lobed, green leaves.
  • Blooms May through July and is several feet tall.
  • Although Americans would consider this a weed, there is a Flore Pleno double flowered variety that received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

R. aquatilis

  • Water buttercup, a perennial plant that can grow in the water or by lakes and ponds.
  • The foliage is finely dissected, fan shaped, and submerged under water while the flowers appear above water.
  • White flowers with yellow centers.
  • Considered a weed.

R. abortivus

  • Littleleaf buttercup, very small, insignificant flowers, about 1/2 inch wide.
  • Large green center but proportionately short petals, five yellow petals.
  • Green, heart-shaped leaves.
  • Plant is about 2 feet tall.
  • Blooms spring to early summer.
  • Appears in low areas such as woods, floodplains, damp areas.
  • Considered a weed.

R. aconitifolius

  • Fair maids of France, a perennial that grows to 2 feet tall and wide.
  • Blooms white flowers with yellow centers in spring and early summer and then becomes dormant in the summer.
  • Hardy to USDA Zones 5-9, full sun to part shade.
  • Tolerates moist soil conditions.
  • This is used as a garden plant and is commercially available.
  • There is a white, double flowering type called Flore Pleno. 

R. asiaticus

  • Persian buttercups, additional information below.

R. bulbosus

  • Bulbous buttercup or St. Anthony’s turnip, a perennial with bulb-like swellings at the base of the stems.
  • Five-petaled, yellow flowers with green, three-lobed foliage.
  • Blooms spring to end of summer.
  • Found in pastures, hay fields, roadsides, and marginal areas.
  • Considered a weed. 

R. carolinianus 

  • Carolina buttercup, yellow flowers, lobed green foliage, blooms spring to summer.
  • Found in low woods and damp thickets and is considered a weed.

R. cortusifolius

  • Giant buttercup, a large buttercup plant from the Canary Islands that can be 2 feet tall with yellow, five-petaled flowers about 2 inches wide.
  • Perennial in USDA Zones 9 and 10.
  • Blooms March through May and then becomes dormant.
  • Can be grown as a garden plant in mild winter areas and is commercially available. 

R. ficaria

  • Lesser Celandine or fig buttercup, now called Ficaria verna.
  • Yellow, 8-12 petaled flower that blooms March and April and then becomes dormant in the summer.
  • Heart-shaped, glossy green leaves, about 2 inches wide and 4 inches tall.
  • Is considered an aggressive weedy perennial groundcover that will compete with native plants and wildflowers, because it makes numerous tubers and bulblets that disperse easily.
  • Prefers moist areas but will grow in dryer habitats.

These are commercially available cultivars that are not considered as aggressive as the species.

  • Brazen Hussy: yellow flowers and dark black foliage.
  • Collarette: unusual plant with heart-shaped green and cream mottled leaves and yellow flowers. The flowers have many straight petals, then a collar of ruffled petals and then a green eye.
  • Dusky Maiden: yellow flowers and green foliage turning dark purple as mature 
  • Orange Sorbet: orange flowers and green foliage.
  • Randall’s White: white flowers with many petals, considered a rock garden plant.

R. gramineus

  • Grass-leaved buttercup.
  • Perennial with narrow, grass-like, gray-green foliage and grows to about 8 inches tall. 
  • Blooms yellow flowers in spring and early summer and then becomes dormant in the summer.
  • Full sun, well-drained soil, considered a rock garden plant, hardy to USDA Zones 5-9.
  • Is not a commonly grown plant but is commercially available and is not invasive.

R. lyallii

  • Mount Cook buttercup, one of the tallest buttercups that can reach 1-2 feet tall and wide.
  • Is a perennial that blooms white flowers in the summer with green foliage that look like lily pads.
  • Prefers full sun to part shade and gravel soil (grow like an alpine).
  • Has a reputation for being difficult to grow.
  • Is not common in the South but is commercially available. 

R. repens 

  • Creeping buttercup, Is stoloniferous, which means it spreads by runners and can be invasive, especially in moist conditions.
  • Can form dense patches that crowd out other species. However, can be used as a groundcover in difficult conditions.
  • About 1 foot high and 2 feet wide, blooms in the summer with yellow flowers.
  • Full sun to part shade, can grow in wet soil and can tolerate full shade.
  • Found in pastures, fields, roadsides, and lawns There is a Flore Pleno type, also called R. repens pleniflorus, which is a doubled-petaled yellow flower that is available commercially. 

R. sardous

  • Hairy buttercup, five-petaled, yellow flowers with three-lobed, green foliage.
  • This is an annual with fibrous root systems.
  • Found in pastures, hay fields, roadsides, and marginal areas.
  • Considered a weed.

R. sceleratus

  • Cursed buttercup, five-petaled, yellow flowers with deeply lobed, green foliage.
  • A perennial that grows to about 2 feet tall and is found in marshes, ditches, and stream banks.
  • Considered a weed.

Persian Buttercups

Persian buttercups (R. asiaticus) are grown as cut flowers and sold by florists, but gardeners can grow these too. The flowers look like layers of colored tissue paper, tightly curled together, almost like a peony. Flower colors are available in orange, white, pink, salmon, gold, yellow, red, and lavender. 

Flowers are 2 to 5 inches across and will last for weeks in a vase. The foliage is finely cut, like a fern. These are cool season flowers, they prefer mild winters, and long cool springs. They are winter hardy to Zone 8-11. If grown in Zone 8-11, they can be treated as perennials. If grown in Zone 6 and 7 and further north, they are treated as annuals. 

These plants need full sun and must be grown in organically rich, well-drained soil so the corms do not rot. They take about three months from planting to bloom. Because they do not like summer heat, gardeners who live north of Zone 8 may want to start 4-6 weeks indoors in the late winter and transplant outdoors after the last spring frost. Gardeners who live in Zone 8-11 can plant the corms outside in the fall so they bloom in winter and spring. These are deer and rabbit resistant, poisonous to animals and humans.

Types of Persian Buttercups

The Persian buttercups are hybrids and come in series such as the Aviv series, Tecolote series, Tomer series, and Bloomingdale series. Within each series are many colors. They are hybridized with cut flower growers in mind so they have long sturdy stems and large flowers. However, they do make good container plants.

Propagating Persian Buttercups

These are grown by corms, which are modified swollen stem bases. A Persian buttercup that has grown and bloomed can be propagated by division or seed. The division method produces a clone, thus preserving the desired characteristics. The corm that produced the plant will have depleted its food resources but in the process will have created new baby corms. The baby corns can be removed, just lift the mother corm from the soil, remove the offsets or baby corms and either replant (if you are in the South) or store inside during the winter and plant next spring. 

These tiny seed corms will take some time to grow in order to flower. The size of the corm is important. The larger the corm, the larger the plant and the more flowers are produced. Therefore, most gardeners purchase large corms every year for as many flowers as possible.

How to Grow Persian Buttercups from Seed

Seed can be collected and sowed from the flowers but keep in mind that the desired characteristics, like the flower color, may not be retained in the offspring because these are hybrids.

  1. When flowers are past their prime, cut the flower heads and place in a paper bag. 
  2. After a few weeks shake the bag to release the seeds from the flowers. 
  3. Save the seed and next year start indoors about 4-6 weeks before the last spring frost. 
  4. In clean seed starting trays (with drainage holes), add moistened seed starting mix. Insert seeds but do not cover, press lightly to make contact with moist soil.
  5. Place under grow lights or fluorescent tubes, leaving lights on for 14 to 16 hours per day.
  6. The lights have to be adjustable. They should be only a few inches away from the plant. 
  7. Mist with water frequently so seeds do not dry out. It is important that they do not dry out when they begin the germination process because germination will stop if allowed to dry and the seeds cannot be “revived.”
  8. As the seed germinates and grow, may have to adjust lights to continue to be only a few inches away from the plant. 
  9. As the seedling grows, can water or mist less often because the roots have formed and are able to obtain water from a lower depth in the mix. 
  10. Thin the seedlings, which is to reduce the number in order to create space for the rest. Cut the weakest seedlings with nail or manicure scissors at the base. This will make room for the strongest. Best to cut, do not pull seedlings out as this will disrupt the rest of the seedlings. 
  11. When true leaves have developed, the last spring frost has passed, and night temperatures are 50 to 55°F consistently, transplant outside into a slightly larger container.
  12. The seedlings should be hardened off before moving to the garden bed in this small container and this can take 2 weeks. 
  13. Harden off by putting the small containers in the shade first, protected from heavy rains and winds. Gradually move the containers to full sun, rain, and the rest of the elements so it is “hardened” to the elements. More roots should have formed. 
  14. Transfer the plant from the small container to the ground (just like you would if you had purchased the plant from a garden center).
  15. Water to establish the plants. 

Overwintering Persian Buttercups

After the blooming period, when the foliage begins to die, one can either lift the corms, store in a cool, dry place and try to plant again or if in the deep south, leave in the ground. They do not store well but as far as bulbs go, these are not expensive.

Common Pests and Diseases in Persian Buttercups

The plants may get a fungal disease such as powdery mildew and rust. Do not spray, just cut off the affected area. Make sure the plant is getting sufficient sun and good air circulation. Water at the base of the plant in morning, not overhead at night.

Persian buttercups may be attacked by aphids or slugs. To control aphids, spray the plants with insecticidal soap. Aphids are tiny insects that suck the plant’s nutrients from the foliage, thus weakening the plant and making it unsightly. Aphids also excrete a sticky substance called honeydew which attracts sooty mold, and they can transmit viruses. To control slugs, sprinkle with diatomaceous earth.

How to get Persian Buttercups to Bloom

Purchase corms from a reputable bulb company. They will look like dehydrated little crabs. Soak the corms in water for up to 4 hours before planting. Plant with the claws downward, 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart. After planting, do not water again until shoots appear.  If outside, protect the shoots from birds. The plant will grow to several feet tall and bloom. 

Plant in full sun and provide good air circulation. 

If in northern states, may start indoors in small containers under lights in late spring so can get a head start. Transplant in May after the last frost. 

Once buttercups bloom, they have to be deadheaded in order to continue the blooms. Remember to wear gloves as the plant may cause dermatitis.

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