Tuesday, June 13, 2006
St. Anthony's Turnip: Ranunculus
One morning, very early,
before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew
on every buttercup.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Every ten days the French Republican calendar features an animal or a tool. And the animal for Prairial 25 is the tench, a small fish that is apparently common in Europe (see the Wikipedia article) but cannot be purchased or eaten in Seattle. Another flower for today is the garden ranunculus which is associated with St. Anthony whose feast day it is.
According to the Wikipedia article,
there are many kinds of ranunculus including the lesser celandine, a flower to which Wordsworth wrote three odes.
The lesser celandine also goes by the name of pilewort as it was used to cure hemorrhoids (because the knobby tubers of the plan resemble piles) and in German, scurvywort, because the leaves are high in vitamin C. The Latin name of the plant, ranunculus, means “little frog,” perhaps because it loves water. The Celtic name of the plant is Grian, meaning sun, because the blossoms close in rain, and, according to Mrs. Grieve, they open at 9 am and close by 5 pm (but does this mean Stevenson was employing poetic license?). Shakespeare praised them with this line: “And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue do paint the meadows with delight.” (Love’s Labours Lost, V ii)
Mrs. Grieve (http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/butcup97.html)
has interesting things to say about Ranunculus bulbosus, which is also called St Anthony’s Turnip (because the roots resemble a turnip), Goldcup and Jaunet (yellow in French) and Crowsfoot. The herbalist Culpeper says it’s a plant of Mars, because of its fiery nature. It raises blisters; Mrs. Grieve mentions that beggars used it to create open sores on their skin to make them appear more pitiable. It is poisonous if eaten by cattle and other grazing stock. But Mrs. Grieve says pigs love it and will travel some distance to find it. She recommends an infusion of ranunculus in wine for curing shingles.
The English common name, buttercup, may derive from a belief that the flowers increased the amount of butter cows gave (although as we’ve seen above they’re actually mildly poisonous to cattle). Funk and Wagnalls says that Irish farmers rubbed them on the udders of their cows on May Day to encourage rich milk, but it sounds like this would cause blisters rather than increasing milk proudction. Perhaps the only association with butter is the color. Supposedly if you hold a buttercup underneath your chin and you can see a reflection of yellow, that means you like butter (but who doesn’t?).
Searching for more about the ranunculus I found a new website that features flower information. Unfortunately I find the myth associated with the ranunculus not only spurious but saccharine:
A great article from the Royal Horticultural Society on growing garden ranunculus or Persian buttercup, which is Ranunculus asiaticus:
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, 1972
Illustration from Mrs. Grieve’s article on the lesser celandine: