One of the many gifts the Common Lands offer up to the people of Sudbury is the explosion of buttercups that appear each spring.
Among the daises, clover and dandelions, they are already showing well and over the coming weeks we will hopefully see another spectacular display as the meadows turn into a carpet of yellow.
As wildflowers go, buttercups are very familiar, and in some quarters regarded as weeds. But as is true with all flora and fauna, if you delve deeper into its sunny centre, there is lots of interesting stuff to learn.
Worldwide, there are 600 species of flowering plant in the buttercup family, several of which inhabit the meadows. By far the most widespread is the meadow buttercup, the tallest variety we have with its narrow, jagged leaves that give it is colloquial name – crowfoot. Look a bit closer and you may find the creeping buttercup inhabiting the damper areas around the dykes. In the muddy surrounds of the water’s edge where the cattle’s hooves have made poach marks, the celery-leaved buttercup can be seen.
On the valley trail, the bulbous buttercup, also known as St Anthony’s turnip, rears its golden head while in Cornard Country Park, which is managed by the Sudbury Common Lands rangers, the uncommon Goldilocks buttercup is found with its small petals and deeply cut leaves.
Buttercups do well on the common lands because of our close vicinity to water. The Latin name for buttercup is ranunculus which translates as ‘little frog’ hinting at the buttercup’s preference for damp ground, streams and riverbanks where it appears in spring, just as little frogs are emerging.
A proliferation of buttercups is also closely associated with grazed land – the more intensively the ground is grazed, the more buttercups you are likely to get the following season, presumably as there is less grass to compete with the flowers. The new cattle that roamed the meadows last year were prodigious grazers, so there is hope we will be in the yellow this spring.
But although there is a certain synchronicity between cow and (butter) cup, buttercups also guarantee their presence on the meadows by being poisonous, to humans and animals. This means the cattle avoid eating them while they are in flower and seeding. The Latin name for meadow buttercup, ranunculus acris, suggests the toxic nature of the plant which can cause irritation to the skin and mouth, vomiting and even loss of consciousness.
This noxious secret adds a dark twist to what is surely one of our most intensely bright wildflowers: one that children down the ages have held under each other’s chins to see if the golden reflection shows that they like butter!
But the buttercup’s ability to reflect so brightly does not simply exist so we can tell if people favour a high cholesterol spread on their toast.
If you look closely at a buttercup, you will notice its petals have an incredible glossy texture. It has been known for some time that these petals are made up of flat cells, shaped in such a way so they can reflect light better.
Scientists at Cambridge University have recently discovered that there is not one, but two layers of these cells on the petals, divided by a thin layer of air. It is a structure that in effect, doubles the gloss of the petal making them more visible to passing bees and pollinators.
Experts have posited that the glossiness of the buttercup’s petals mimics the presence of nectar droplets to entice insects.
Buttercups are also heliotropic – that is they follow the sun, their petals tracking it throughout the day, especially when it is cold. The petals can also turn in and create a cup shape (thus its name) to capture the heat from the sun’s rays. Studies have shown that this can raise the flower’s temperature by 3°C – a handy adaption to have on a chilly day in Suffolk.
Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity