Nancy Whelan

“Dear Little Buttercup”

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Born in Toronto, Nancy grew up in the tiny silver mining town of Cobalt in Northern Ontario, trained as a teacher and first taught in Kirkland Lake. In 1960, she and her husband and three young children moved to Sooke where Nancy continued her teaching career on the Island. In 1965, the family moved to Entrance Island, becoming lighthouse keepers for two years. Nancy moved to the Parksville/Qualicum area in 1967 and taught in the district until retirement in 1989 when she started writing. Her work has appeared regularly in Island newspapers and magazines, and a few pieces in the Vancouver Sun.

With a quote from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore many a gardener could well agree: “I’m called Little Buttercup – dear little buttercup, though I never could tell why”. It’s that word ‘dear’, likely the very last adjective to come to mind as on hands and knees, we try to extract, eradicate, and remove forever the creeping scourge of Ranunculus repens.

Although the buttercup has its tame and cultivated cousins, it’s the one that fills our spring fields and garden beds that earns the title of an aggressive major weed. A favourite walk down the back lane where I can enjoy neighbours’ gardens over back fences led me to learn more about dear little Ranunculus.

In a garden with burgeoning rhubarb and delicate, hugely flowered rhodos, there was one area fenced off from the rest. In its centre stood a thriving tree, totally and thickly surrounded by nothing but nodding yellow buttercups. A short chat with the resident gardener explained, “We tried everything to get rid of those buttercups. We planted a sturdy clover there and it worked for a while, but when the buttercups took over again we let them have their way.”

And that’s what buttercups are best at … making their way across the ground with sly runners that don’t hesitate to send down new plant-forming roots along the way. The flower stems may rise gracefully above the plant’s ground-hugging base, but leaves, stems, and roots respond only to vigorous pulling or digging … and then we no doubt miss a wee bit that chuckles and spreads anew.

Some moths and butterflies feed on buttercups, but the plants can cause severe unpleasant reactions when eaten by humans or horses or cattle. Interestingly, an old source, ‘Gardener’s Dictionary’ says that buttercups were so named “under the notion that the yellow colour of butter is owing to these plants”. Luckily, grazing animals usually avoid Ranunculus because it tastes bad.

Many of us grew up with the old children’s game of holding a buttercup under one’s chin, and if the skin turned yellow it indicated that we liked butter. There are apparently three explanations for the yellow-chin-syndrome. One is that the flower holds a skin irritant that turns the skin yellow; another claims that pollen from the flower touching the chin turns it yellow; the third, friendliest, and most likely is simply that the yellow chin is a reflection of the flower’s particularly shiny and light-reflecting five golden petals.

So whether we dig, pull, or spray them, buttercups are considered “secure globally” and with 1 500 to 1 800 species worldwide they appear to have a firm future. While here on the Island they love our dark, damp garden soil, they thrive in dry fields as well, and even in the Canadian Arctic the family is represented by at least six different species.

If we can’t tolerate the busybody buttercup in our gardens, we can’t help but admire their dear shiny faces from a distance.


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