On the heels of my primrose posting, here’s one on another seasonal flower in these parts, the ranunculus (a flower especially of the late winter and early spring). Very pretty in an overblown sort of way, and with an odd etymology.

To start with, ranunculus as a common name refers to cultivars of one particular species, Ranunculus asiaticus, in the genus Ranunculus, a species also known as Persian buttercup. An illustration:

From the National Gardening Association site, in a piece by Michael Maskey:

Brilliantly colored flowers are ranunculus’ chief attraction, and they are indeed special. They most often come in multiple layers of delicate, crepe paper — thin petals, looking like an origami masterwork. Ranunculus (R. asiaticus) excel in southern and western gardens, and make terrific container plants everywhere. They also make long-lasting cut flowers. Bulbs are widely available in Fall at retail nurseries in mild-winter climates; in Fall and early spring from mail-order catalogs.

Ranunculus leaves, grass green and vaguely celery-like, grow in a mound 6 to 12 inches across. Flowers on 12- to 18-inch stems emerge in March from fall-planted bulbs, June and July from spring-planted bulbs; they last up to six weeks. On the most common type, the Tecolote strain [illustrated above], flowers are mostly fully double, 3 to 6 inches wide, and available in bicolored picotee, gold, pastel mix, pink, red, rose, salmon, sunset orange, white, and yellow. The less common Bloomingdale strain is shorter, to 10 inches, with pale orange, pink, red, yellow, and white double flowers.

Broadly speaking, ranunculus are frost-hardy cool-season perennials. They perform best where winters are relatively mild and springs are long and cool.

On the genus, from Wikipedia:

Ranunculus … is a large genus of about 600 species of plants in the Ranunculaceae. Members of the genus include the buttercups, spearworts, water crowfoots and the lesser celandine.

More specifically, from OED3 (Dec. 2008) on ranunculus:

Originally: any of several meadow plants with palmate leaves and bright yellow flowers, members of the family Ranunculaceae; a buttercup; a crowfoot. Later more widely: any plant of the mostly of north temperate genus Ranunculus, the members of which have typically yellow or white flowers with numerous stamens and five or more free petals with nectaries at their base, and which also includes the spearworts, the lesser celandine, the water crowfoots, etc.; esp. (more fully garden ranunculus), R. asiaticus, of the eastern Mediterranean, grown widely as an ornamental in various forms and colours. [cites from 1543 on]

On the name buttercup, from OED2:

A name popularly applied to species of Ranunculus bearing yellow cup-shaped flowers, esp. R. bulbosus, R. acris, and R. repens; and usually taken as the English name of the genus.

[The name, which seems to be first recorded in the course of 18th c., may be regarded as a mixture of the older names for these plants, viz. butter-flower n. and gold-cups or king-cups. In the earlier instances it is always buttercups.]

So buttercup is now a non-subsective resembloid compound — a buttercup isn’t a kind of cup, but rather a flower that is cup-shaped; butter enters into it because the semantic relationship between the two parts is also one of resemblance: a buttercup is LIKE butter (in color).

The name is especially used for the creeping buttercup, Ranunculus repens, an invasive pest of a plant with very pretty yellow flowers:

The plant propagates itself by seeds (a huge number of which are in that fruit in the photo) and also by rooting itself wherever a stem touches the ground — hence the creeping in the common name (and in the Latin participle repens).

Then on the name ranunculus. From the OED:

< classical Latin rānunculus little frog, medicinal plant, perhaps crowfoot (Pliny) < rāna frog … + -unculus

Wikipedia suggests that frogs come into the genus name probably because so many species are found near water, like frogs.

Final notes, on the lesser celandine and the water crowfoot.

(Wikipedia notes that celandine is a common name for three different species of flowers: the greater celandine, Chelidonium majus, in the poppy family; the lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, in the buttercup family; and the celandine-poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, in the poppy family.)

Wikipedia on the lesser celandine:

Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria, syn. Ficaria grandiflora Robert, Ficaria verna Huds.) is a low-growing, hairless perennial plant, with fleshy dark green, heart-shaped leaves. The plant is found throughout Europe and west Asia and is now introduced in North America. It prefers bare, damp ground and in the UK it is often a persistent garden weed. The flowers are orange, turning yellow as they age.

… According to the Oxford English Dictionary, celandine comes from the Latin chelidonia, meaning swallow: it was said that the flowers bloomed when the swallows returned and faded when they left.

And WordNet 3.0 on the water crowfoot or water buttercup, Ranunculus aquatilis

plant of ponds and slow streams having submerged and floating leaves and white flowers; Europe and North America

Water crowfoot also spreads aggressively.


2 Responses to “ranunculus”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    I wrote a poem about Chelidonium majus several years ago. Well, actually the poem was about homeopathy. Well, actually the poem was about a pretty girl from high school days….

    I spun up a phone disk of ninety million names,
    and found her in Denver, after forty years,
    her bright face, her delicious body,
    divorced, an accountant, doing homeopathy.

    Told her I had migraines, sometimes bad,
    and a little blue tube from France came in the mail,
    full of white pills the size of BB shot,
    one to be put under my tongue, every day.

    I imagine that single flower, that swooping swallow,
    alterative, cathartic, expectorant, diuretic,
    that celandine diluted into a space
    reaching beyond Orion, beyond the Pleiades,

    blooming in the void, vision of Georgia O’Keefe,
    with a green bud like the flower in the garland
    I watched sinking in the sea past Diamond Head
    sailing from Hawai’i when I was two years old,

    becoming the green light of Orion’s nebula
    that started for earth before her face was shining,
    whatever it does for my head in the gross world of carbon,
    becoming the sweet taste of memory under my tongue.

  2. Vocabulary surprises | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] There’s a pile of botanical terminology — French for sepal, pistil, achene, and stamen, in particular — but then there’s the common name of the plant, (le) bouton d’or (or bouton-d’or), literally ‘button of gold’. Again, that makes sense after the fact, but I can’t see any way to get from the English common name, buttercup, to the French. (Photos of buttercups in this posting.) […]

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