There are about 300 species of buttercups in the United States. I have photographs of perhaps ten species, some identified and others which I simply cannot figure out. One buttercup found in the sagebrush country where we live (Modoc County CA) is the appropriately named sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus).
One of the earliest spring arrivals, the sagebrush buttercup is often found growing in association with ponderosa pines, junipers, bitterbrush and, of course, sagebrush. The five bright yellow, waxy petals contrast beautifully with the basal, green, fleshy, lobed leaves. This native plant is a perennial that grows close to the ground reaching 2 to 6 inches in height.
ALL buttercups are mildly poisonous when fresh. The toxins are destroyed by heat or drying. Although one would need to eat a large quantity for fatal results, ingestion of smaller amounts causes a burning sensation in the mouth, abdominal pain, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. I can attest that even a very small sample will cause one’s mouth to burn.
The juice of a buttercup contains protoanemonim, a skin irritant, that causes redness and blistering of the skin and mucous membranes. I once read that beggars would rub buttercup juice on their skin in an attempt to elicit more sympathy. Native Americans rubbed their arrowheads with buttercup flowers as a poison. The entire plant was ground up and mixed with fresh meat to kill coyotes. Poultices of buttercups were reported to alleviate pain. I am not certain whether relieving “pain” was worth blistered skin. Then again, I may not be totally clear on the concept.
As children we always picked buttercup bouquets without any ill effects. However, I now only enjoy bright yellow buttercups as a harbinger of the other wildflowers soon to come.
This sagebrush buttercup was near Ash Creek in Lassen County CA.