The quintessential wildflower of spring and summer, ranunculus (perhaps better known as buttercups) are famed for their cheerful sunshine blooms which conjure up whimsical memories of childhood games. But whimsy aside, these fascinating plants are some of the most technologically complex flora in our natural world.
Ranunculus are also some of the most diverse wildflowers, with aquatic, semiaquatic, and terrestrial varieties all contained within the genus, meaning there’s a buttercup for every environment and every garden!
Learn all about these biologically brilliant beauties with our ultimate guide to growing and caring for buttercups.
What are Buttercups?
Ranunculus is a large genus of flowering plants that are more commonly known as buttercups. There are several hundred individual buttercup species in the ranunculus genus, including aquatic, terrestrial, creeping, and upright varieties. They can be grown from bulbs, known as tubers, or from seed, and can be grown as annuals, biennials, or perennials depending on the species.
Naturalised across vast areas of Europe, Asia, North and South America, and North Africa, they can be found growing in woodlands, wetlands, meadows, parks, and urban metropolises. Their ability to spread rambunctiously, thrive in poor conditions, and return year after year has led to them being somewhat unfairly regarded as weeds by some, but adored for their tenacity and beauty by others.
Buttercups can range in height from three feet tall to just a few inches high, depending on the species. Each flower head is usually arranged individually atop slender, lightly hairy stems. The foliage is a true green colour, often with irregular, dissected leaves.
Many of us have fond childhood memories of the quintessential yellow buttercup, and whilst it’s true that the majority of flowers in the ranunculus genus are yellow in hue, there are some varieties which feature white, orange, purple, pink, or red flowers.
Some varieties boast ornate rose-like double-flowered petal formations, whilst others feature simple, cup-shaped five-petalled flowers. But don’t be fooled by their simplistic appearance. Buttercups are some of the cleverest, most technologically advanced plants on the planet!
One distinctive trait of buttercups is their lustrous, almost reflective petals. This phenomenon is often seen in birds, but it is unique to buttercups among plants. The lustre is created by a layer of air which sits below the petals’ outer epidermis layer, creating a reflective illusion.
The yellow reflection is what gave rise to the childhood game of holding a buttercup to your chin to see the yellow reflection on your chin, (and, of course, determine the extent of your fondness for butter!). Scientifically, this reflection plays a far more important ecological role. The flashes of colour reflected by the petals are used to entice bees and other insects to visit buttercups to feast on their nectar, pollinating them in the process.
The reflective qualities of the petals also serve another purpose. They help to regulate the temperature of the plant’s reproductive organs by insulating heat. In cold weather, the cup-shaped flowers will turn inwards to conserve warmth and preserve their fertility.
Buttercup blooms are also heliotropic, meaning they move around throughout the day to follow the trajectory of the sun!
How did Buttercups get their name?
The genus name Ranunculus is Latin for ‘little frog’. It is thought that buttercups earned this name because many species pop up near bodies of water, where frogs can be found! The common name, buttercup, is something of a misnomer.
People once thought that the yellow colouring of the flowers gave butter its yellow colour when cows had been grazing on fields of buttercups. It has since been discovered that buttercups are poisonous to cattle, but the name stuck. Luckily, their acrid, bitter taste means that cattle generally avoid munching on buttercups, or at least puts them off eating enough to cause any significant harm.
What do buttercups symbolise?
Buttercups are closely associated with childhood, perhaps because they feature in such a common childhood game. As a result, they are often used to symbolise youth, playfulness, and whimsy. Their bright yellow flowers are often associated with positivity, optimism, and joy.
The simplicity of many buttercup flowers means they are also used to represent neatness and humility. Buttercups are often given as a gift, especially when the recipient could do with cheering up.
Eleven Best types of Buttercups to Grow
Whether you have a pond garden, a rock garden, a cottage garden, or a wildflower meadow, there’s a ranunculus variety that’s perfect for you! Let’s take a look at some of the best varieties this species has to offer.
Meadow buttercups are the quintessential sunshine yellow flowers that most of us imagine when we think of ranunculus. Their cup-shaped flowers feature five glossy yellow petals framing their central yellow stamen. It is one of the most common wild buttercups, springing up in woodlands, meadows, and gardens from April to October. It is also one of the tallest buttercups, sometimes growing up to a meter tall.
Creeping buttercups are a low-growing, densely foliated ranunculus with a tenacious spreading growth habit. This variety also features the classic sunshine yellow five-petalled blooms, only with a slightly more open formation than their cup-shaped cousins. The creeping buttercup can tolerate heavy, wet soils and is often found growing near rivers, lakes, or garden ponds.
Bulbous buttercups are so named for their large, swollen underground bulbs and fleshy root systems. They too display the typical butter-yellow, glossy petals in an upturned formation, and flower from March to May. Bulbous varieties prefer chalky, loamy, or well-draining soil since their fibrous roots are prone to rot in soggy soils, although they are known for their ability to thrive in nutrient-poor conditions.
Celery-leaved buttercups are an annual variety which make for a truly interesting display. Their wide-open, flat yellow petals encircle an oversized, spherical or conical hollow achene, which looks like a miniature green strawberry. It takes its name from its intricately dissected leaves which are reminiscent of celery foliage. It is also the most toxic of all buttercups, so keep this variety away from pets or livestock.
Goldilocks buttercups are known for their slightly unkempt, naturalistic foliage. Often found thriving in woodlands and meadows, where their presence is a good indicator of a healthy, ancient woodland ecosystem. They are perfect for wildflower meadows or cottage gardens, being both low-maintenance and effortlessly pretty with their simple yet perfectly formed yellow flowers.
Water Crowfoots are an aquatic species often found in rivers, ponds, lakes, and wetlands. Their five white petals frame a sunshine yellow central disk to create a cheerful spring and summer bloom, with their evergreen lobed foliage floating calmly atop the surface of the water. They are the perfect addition to a garden pond, helping to oxygenate the water whilst the leaves provide shelter for small fish.
Persian buttercups are arguably the most decorative of all buttercup species. They are often grown as ornamentals and are prized for their tightly arranged, dense displays of rose-like flowers. They are also available in the widest variety of colours, with blooms in hues of whites, peaches, yellows, pinks, and purples.
Lesser Spearwort buttercups are a semi-aquatic species which can be found growing alongside bodies of water and on the banks of rivers. They display flat, disk-like glossy yellow petals from midsummer all through to mid-autumn, so are the perfect choice if you wish to adorn your garden pond with a splash of late-season colour. Or perhaps you may like to grow their slightly more robust cousin, the Greater Spearwort, which displays even larger blooms.
Alpine buttercups have a stout, compact growth habit with dense foliage and almost poppy-like yellow flowers, slightly larger than typically found amongst buttercups. Usually found growing at high elevations in North America, they prefer a cool temperature and moist soil.
Aconite Leaf buttercups are a true delight. They display elegant white petalled blooms framing pale gold central stamens, perched atop slender, whispery stems. They make a fabulous addition to a tapestry lawn, perfectly complementing the similar-in-appearance daisy.
Badgeworth buttercups are the rarest of all buttercups. So rare in fact, that they are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. They can only be found growing in two small areas of Gloucestershire, and only in very wet conditions. Whilst you may not be able to grow this variety in your garden, if you’re in the area, it’s certainly worth a trip to see their tiny, delicate yellow flowers when they are in bloom throughout June.
How to grow Buttercups
Once you’ve decided on the best buttercup for you and your garden, growing them is the easy bit! These fabulous flowers are effortlessly low maintenance, whether you choose to grow yours from a bulb or from seed.
Growing From Bulbs
Buttercups are fantastically easy to grow from bulbs. The small tubers look like miniature bunches of bananas and are available to purchase from most nurseries and garden centres in a huge variety of species.
Plant your tubers in the ground during late summer and early autumn for blooms the following spring. If you live in a very cold climate where ground temperatures will stay consistently below freezing for large parts of the winter, you could plant your buttercup tubers in very early spring for slightly later blooms. Or you could start them off indoors around eight weeks before the last frost. Bulbs planted in the autumn tend to bloom more prolifically and for longer than those planted in spring.
For planting your tubers outdoors in the autumn, you could soak your ranunculus tubers for a couple of hours until plump before planting them. This can help speed up the sprouting process, but it isn’t essential. Make sure your plant them in well-draining soil so that additional moisture levels over winter won’t rot the bulbs before they have a chance to become established.
Plant your bulbs at a depth of around eight to ten centimetres and allow about the same distance apart from one another. Insert your tubers into the ground ‘claw’ side down, with the ‘eye’ part facing upwards and cover with soil.
Water the bulbs well just after planting them, and then withhold water throughout winter to avoid rotting the bulbs, unless you have a particularly long dry spell. Bulbs grown indoors will need misting regularly but lightly. Your buttercups grown from tubers should start to flower around 90 days after planting.
Growing From Seed
The more patient gardeners amongst us could even try growing ranunculus from seeds, although they usually won’t flower until late on in their first year, and some won’t flower until their second year. You can either buy a packet of seeds or collect your own from the seed pods of mature plants which remain after the flowers have faded.
If collecting your own seeds, place the pod in an envelope to dry out for around a week. You can then extract the seeds by giving the dry pod a gentle shake.
Seeds are best sown indoors around eight weeks before the last frost date for your area. Fill a seed tray with loose, well-draining substrate and scatter the seeds thinly on the surface. Position the tray somewhere with indirect light and a temperature of around 15 to 20 °C.
Regularly mist the soil to keep it lightly moist. Your buttercup seeds should start to germinate in around two weeks, at which point they can be moved to a slightly sunnier spot. After the seedlings have produced a few true leaves, they can be transferred to individual pots.
Wait until the final frost has passed before hardening them off for a week or so and finally transplanting your young ranunculus into their final growing position in the garden.
How to care for Buttercups
Once your seeds and tubers have grown into established ranunculus plants, caring for them couldn’t be easier. Here’s how!
Pots and positioning
Buttercups are one of those wonderfully versatile flowers that will flourish just about anywhere. Creeping varieties will need plenty of space in borders as they spread voraciously, whilst upright varieties are well suited to growing in containers or small borders.
Buttercups don’t need to be confined to pots or beds either. They are perfect additions to a pollinator-friendly tapestry lawn. Simply scatter the seeds over your lawn in spring and keep them lightly moist until seedlings emerge.
If you do choose to grow your buttercups in containers, make sure they have plenty of drainage holes, as their tuberous roots will quickly succumb to root rot if left in soggy soil.
Buttercups can tolerate a wide range of light conditions from full sun to partial shade, although they tend to bloom more prolifically in sunnier spots. The exact light requirements will vary from species to species, but generally, they are a forgiving group, meaning you can be fairly flexible with where you choose to grow yours.
For the majority of buttercup species that grow terrestrially, you will need a lightly moist but well-draining substrate. Sandy or loamy soils are best, but you can amend heavier soils with horticultural grit or perlite to improve drainage. Buttercups like fairly fertile soil, so add plenty of compost before planting too! Aquatic species, however, can tolerate much wetter soils and will be happiest near a pond or in an area of the garden which gets a lot of moisture. Buttercups perform best in a slightly acidic soil.
The trick to growing happy buttercups is to water them sparingly without letting them dry out completely. Although they can withstand moderate periods of drought, buttercups really flourish when their soil is kept very lightly moist. Mature buttercups usually need around an inch of water each week, depending on the climate. You won’t need to water them at all during long rainy spells or throughout winter.
Young buttercups will need slightly more water in the first few months until they become well-established. Allow buttercups grown in containers to drain thoroughly after watering to prevent rotting the tuberous roots. Aquatic buttercups can tolerate a lot more moisture than terrestrial varieties, so take this into account when devising your watering schedule.
Temperature and Humidity
Buttercups thrive in the cool and temperate weather of spring and early summer. They will start to become dormant in mid-to-late summer when temperatures reach their peak. If you live in a very hot climate, you can add a layer of mulch to the soil to help keep the bulbs cool underground. Buttercups aren’t particularly fussy about humidity levels, but consistently high humidity can cause their bulbs to rot.
When you first plant your buttercup bulbs, it’s a good idea to work a little bulb food into the soil to sustain them over winter. Once in bloom, you can feed them with an all-purpose plant food to encourage abundant flowers, and then once the flowers have faded in late summer, add some low-nitrogen food to strengthen the bulbs again for winter.
Regularly deadheading your buttercups will help to extend their blooming period and prevent them from becoming unkempt or straggly. Simply snip off any fading flowers to encourage new ones to take their place. Don’t prune any of the foliage after the flowers have finished in late summer to allow the plant to absorb as much light as possible through its leaves. This will help the bulbs to store up plenty of energy for winter.
If you are growing an annual buttercup variety then you can simply dig up and discard them once the flowers have fallen. For perennial varieties, you can simply add a layer of mulch to the soil to protect their roots and bulbs from frost over the winter.
Container-grown buttercups can be moved to a greenhouse or a sheltered place in the garden to protect them from harsh frosts. If you live in a very cold climate where winters are likely to be excessively harsh or wet, you may need to lift your bulbs and store them for winter.
Cut the foliage right back and dig up the bulbs. Shake off any excess dirt and store them somewhere cool, dark, and dry. Once the final frost passes in spring you can reintroduce the bulbs to the garden.
Early autumn is also the best time to propagate or divide any unruly buttercup plants. Simply expose the bulbs beneath the soil and use a sharp spade or knife to carefully split the root ball, making sure you don’t damage or remove any other roots. The newly separated bulbs can then be replanted in other positions around the garden.
How long does ranunculus live?
Perennial buttercup species can enjoy a fairly long lifespan of around ten years if cared for correctly, whilst annual species will live for just one year, and biennials have a lifespan of two years from bulb to flower.
Are ranunculus toxic ?
All parts of the ranunculus plant contain a toxin called ranunculin, which is toxic to both humans and animals. They can irritate the skin with excessive contact, so if you have sensitive skin it’s best to wear gloves when handling the bulbs and plants.
Whether you opt for a naturalistic wildflower variety or an intricate ornamental, these low-maintenance, high-impact native flowers are far from simple. Offering some of the most advanced biological characteristics in the natural world, they will make a thrilling and fascinating addition to just about any area of your garden!