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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Buttercups Unite!

Did you know that buttercups can be blue?

 Photo courtesy of Dorothy Tuthill and her Photoshop skillz.

Actually, the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, is very large, and not all members are butter-colored. In Wyoming, there are about 75 species in 12 genera. The largest genus is Ranunculus; it includes the yellow plants we picture when buttercups are mentioned.

One of the buttercups found in Wyoming.  This one was found in the Cloud Peak Wilderness of the Bighorn Mountains.
Photo by Brenna Wanous
But that leaves 11 genera and 33 species that mostly are not yellow.  Ones to look for on the Berry Prairie include:

Colorado Blue Columbine, pictured in the Snowy Mountains just west of Laramie.
Photo by Brenna Wanous

Aquilegia caerulea—Colorado Blue Columbine
This beautiful flower can be found in mountains from New Mexico to Canada, and is the state flower of Colorado. Sure doesn’t look like a buttercup!

Laramie Columbine are smaller and paler than the Colorado Blue Columbine.

Aquilegia laramiensis—Laramie Columbine
Restricted to the Laramie Range in Albany and Converse counties, this diminutive charmer grows mostly in rocky outcrops. The Berry Prairie is an unlikely place to find columbines, but they seem to be doing well (see the last blog) and we hope they will thrive here.

The native Clematis scottii looks a bit different from the clematis in your garden, doesn't it!

Clematis scottii—Sugarbowl Clematis
The name should be a give-away that this plant is closely related to some floriferous vines that people grow in their gardens. But this plant doesn’t vine, and is rarely found in gardens. Around here, you’re most likely to find sugarbowl in the hills and mountains.

Pasque flowers are common in North American prairie.  The one pictured above was located in the Bighorn Mountains in northeastern Wyoming.
Photo by Brenna Wanous

Pullsatilla patens—Pasque Flower
Spring is here when the pasque flowers bloom! Yet another foothills plant, found throughout the American west.

About the Buttercups

These plants look different from each other, as well as from buttercups, so what are the features that unite them in the family Ranunculaceae? Since botanists start with the flowers, we’ll start there, too. The flowers are hypogynous. That means that the sepal and petals are attached below the gynoecium (the female reproductive structure), which is made up of three or more fused carpels. The gynoecium is surrounded by 10 or more stamens. 

Most members of Ranunculaceae lack petals. This may come as a surprise, given that they all have colorful flowers. In fact, those are usually petaloid sepals. Exceptions to this rule include Ranunculus and Aquilegia. In the former, it is the petals that are bright yellow, and the sepals are small and non-showy. In Aquilegia, both the sepals and petals are showy—the petals are spurred, and sepals make up the colorful whorl that alternates with the petals. 

Beyond the flowers, ranuncs usually have divided or lobed leaves, and are rarely woody. 

Perennial species often make rhizomes or small tubers that develop new roots each year. 

Last but not least, many members of the Ranunculaceae are poisonous. Aconitum (monkshood), Acteae (baneberry) and Delphinium (larkspur) are well known for their toxicity, but even columbine will make a person ill if consumed in quantity. All members of the family produce protoanemonin, which can cause rashes when touched and nausea or even paralysis when eaten, and some genera produce toxic alkaloids and glycosides in addition to protoanemonin.

None of the Berry Prairie’s blue buttercups have flowered this year, but we are looking forward to seeing them in their cerulean beauty next spring.

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center's Associate Director

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