At the recent “Beautiful Burial Ground” conference, a handful of us snatched a few minutes to look at the wild flowers of Horstead churchyard, searching for the gone-over heads of meadow saxifrage and the soft leaves of black knapweed, not yet in flower. I asked the delegates that if they took away just one thing from this brief flower walk, I wanted it to be a willingness to look more closely at buttercups.
|Meadow grasses, meadow buttercup and ragged
photo by Helen Baczkowska
A few weeks ago, I surveyed a meadow in Brundall, tucked on the edge of the Broads, and had to look twice in some places to distinguish meadow buttercup from lesser spearwort Ranunculus flamula, for they are easily confused at a glance. Here they grew side by side, intertwined on the edges of the field’s wet hollows. Lesser spearwort has a much smaller flower, its petals barely 2cm across, but with sepals very like meadow buttercup and distinctive spear-shaped leaves; it is a plant of wet meadows and pond-edges and at the Brundall meadow, beneath the tall flowers and grasses, were the striking magenta flowers of southern marsh orchids. In case you are wondering, greater spearwort Ranunculus lingua is indeed a larger, but less common, version of the lesser, this time with flowers up to 5 cm across.
Celery leaved buttercup Ranunculus sceleratus, also a plant of wet places and the margins of summer ponds, has lobed leaves that do indeed resemble celery, with clusters of small yellow flowers. Deeper out in the water, the white-flowered crowfoots, of which there are several different species, may float on the surface and these too are buttercups, with the same simple arrangement of petals.
Finally, a word of caution, for in many meadows, the yellow, child’s drawing flowers may not be buttercups at all; many, are potentillas, related to roses: creeping cinquefoil Potentilla reptans has five-fingered leaves splayed out like a hand and creeps on long stems, but its five-petalled yellow flower is less glossy than those of the buttercups; tormentil Potentilla erecta, is a plant of heaths and acidic, often sandy, soils with small flowers, usually with four petals, finely dissected leaves and tall uptight stems. Silverweed Potentilla anserina has fronds of feathery leaves, silver-white underneath and cheerful pale yellow flowers, close to the ground.
These brief descriptions are no substitutes for a wild flower book, with their keys, drawings and photographs, but hopefully they will inspire you to search the grasslands around you and take a closer look at these golden flowers of summer.