Buttercups, elegant and creeping

Back in April I wrote about bulbous buttercups, that at the time were flowering along the paths and grassy areas of Burwell. At the time I said there are three common species of buttercup found around the village and I frustrated some of you by not describing the other two species. So I will make up for my error now, with my apologies. Bulbous buttercups are finished flowering now, the other two species – creeping buttercups and meadow buttercups – are flowering well – creeping buttercups too well for allotment holders, where they are constantly creeping off the paths into the vegetable growing patches!

Bulbous buttercups’ sepals fold downwards

First a quick reminder about Bulbous buttercups. You may remember these are easily told from the other two species of buttercup as their sepals – petal-like structures under the petals – fold downwards towards their stems. Sepals are usually not as showy as a flowers’ petals – which are often brightly coloured to attract pollinating insects – but they play an important protecting role, often sheltering the petals when the flower is in bud or during rain.

Creeping buttercups form a carpet at Burwell allotments.

Creeping buttercups Ranunculus repens are well named for those who regard them as a menace. Their leaves form thick mats, crowding out other vegetation and as their name implies, they creep – by sending out runners that then root. In this way they quickly and literally, gain ground. They tend to flower low to the ground and their leaves are less intricately edged than the other two buttercups and often have pale blotches.

Meadow buttercups dancing at Pauline’s Swamp

Meadow buttercups are the ballerinas of the three. They stand tall, have elaborately cut leaves and grow where habitat is at its finest for wildlife. I’ve seen a few in Priory Wood and at Burwell Castle; they are rampant at Pauline’s Swamp.

In evolutionary terms, buttercups are one of the oldest flowers. You can tell this by their simple form: they have petals that are separate to each other and multiple male stamens, which circle the inner female stigmas. To be fertilised pollen from a stamen needs to transfer to a stigma, where it travels down a thin tube to the ovary below. The stamens and stigmas on any one flower are fertile at different times to avoid self-fertilisation. Buttercups have a simple strategy for reproduction. The wide open flower aims to attract insects to land. The presence of multiple sexual organs increases the chances of an insect picking up pollen from the anthers, or transferring pollen to the stigmas.

Viper’s-bugloss flowers are evolved to maximise the chances of fertilisation of their seed by visiting insects.

As flowers evolve, their strategy becomes more developed. Petals fuse, creating funnels to draw pollinating insects in. As the strategy for drawing in the insects right into the flower improves, the numbers of stamens and stigmas can reduce, – so reducing the energy costs for the plant. The beautiful bluey-purple tall viper’s-bugloss is in flower now. Look at how clever this species’ flower is. As a bee lands on a lower petal attracted by the prospect of a drink of nectar, the other petals bend and the male stamens brush round the bee, to ensure the bee picks up pollen to carry to and fertilise the next viper’s bugloss flower it visits. To reach the nectar, the bee has to put its head right into the flower. Any pollen it is carrying from another flower has ample chance of being brushed off onto this flower’s female stigmas. The ova in the heart of the flower is fertilised and a seed is formed.

I found learning I could have an idea of a flower species’ place in the evolutionary process just by looking at its structure a revelation. Have a look at all the plants in flower now and see how much they have adapted to attract insects in, to save themselves costly energy and be as effective as possible at reproducing. We are looking at the result of millions of years of development – and also know, when we look at buttercups, we are going back to the very earliest times. In french they are called bouton d’or, buttons of gold. Indeed they are.

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update on chalking

Thank you for your supportive comments about my chalking flower names on pavements. A few times people have seen me as I have been chalking names on Newmarket Road. I’ve asked them what they think. They’ve told me ‘its a good idea’, ‘makes the walk more interesting’, ‘children like it’. This is exactly what I had hoped for.

So I was really disappointed to see that yet again Newmarket Road verges have been cut. The verges look very neat and tidy – I think gradually, imperceptibly, we have become trained to think uniform short cut green is the ideal. Not so long ago we did not have the tools or money to have all this neatness. But this verge – and all the others that have been cut again like this – are ‘dead’. Yet again there are no golden buttercups, or other flowers; bees and butterflies have no food sources, as we walk we have no colours or humming music to lift our spirits; nothing to encourage children to get outside and see what they can see.

In lockdown we are walking more often, and more locally. There is also increasing debate about how we want our world to be post-lockdown. The value of nature around us has become more obvious.

We have choices to make about our world. These choices really matter: For ourselves and for the other ‘life’ that we share this world with. Tina’s windows, a joy as ever, are full of creatures, hedgehogs, bees. Do we want our children only to have these stuffed or crafted versions, as delightful as they are? Or do we want them to see them as they walk round our village – in time, hopefully, on the way to school. Hopefully, in all that word’s meaning.

Pound Hill buttercups

I was delighted to be told there may be a re-think next year about leaving the buttercups to flower on Pound Hill. To let the buttercups flower, will, I think, require a shift in our thinking, to once again enjoying the wavy edges, the longer grass, to recognise again the beauty in the gold of nature. I’d love to know what you think. Scroll to the bottom to the comments box and let me know…

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Update – buttercups chopped

I was devastated to find Pound Hill has been mown again, just as buttercups were covering the grass with their gorgeous golden flowers. The only places the buttercups were saved is where daffodils, non-wild plants, have been planted as the daffodils’ dying leaves have been carefully cut around. The buttercups that happened to be growing amongst them live on…

Buttercups were flowering across Pound Hill
What remains where buttercups were flowering

We have gained so many tools to keep things tidy without much effort. Without realising, our tidiness is destroying something fundamentally precious…

In my first post I mentioned that ‘buttercup’ has been taken out of the Junior Oxford Dictionary. Too few children now use the word to justify it having a place. Concern at the loss of words such as this was so great that fundraising campaigns bought every primary school a copy of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s ‘Lost Words’. This book celebrates nature such as ‘buttercups’, ‘acorns’, and ‘otter’ that are being lost from children’s vocabulary – and worlds. How ironic people raised money to get this book into primary schools, while money continues to be spent cutting down the flowers we are so concerned children no longer know the name of.

I hope we have a rethink about how we want our world to be…