Nature Blog Network

on buttercups

I recall from secondary school biology being taught how to use a Linnaeus key by identifying a meadow buttercup. Little did I know then that there are over a couple of dozen members of the buttercup family in Britain, with some of them looking nothing like the yellow flower which glows when you put it under the chin…

There are at least three species of buttercup on the lane:
meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris)
goldilocks buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus)
creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens)

amongst them, and looking for all the world like a buttercup at first glance was wood avens or Genum urbanum. Except that it isn’t a buttercup at all, its a member of the rose family. It is said to protect against rabid dogs and venomous snakes - thankfully neither of these has been identified on the lane to date. The roots have also been used to flavour beer with a flavour akin to cloves.

wood avens thumbnail Pasted Graphic
‘Names. Called also Colewort, and Herbbonet.
Description. The ordinary avens hath many long, rough, dark, green winged leaves, rising from the root, every one made of many leaves set on each side of the middle rib, the largest three thereof grow at the end, and are snipped, or dented round about the edges; the other being small pieces, sometimes two and sometimes four, standing on each side of the middle rib underneath them. Among which do rise up divers rough or hairy stalks about two feet high, branching forth with leaves at every joint not so long as those below, but almost as much cut in on the edges, some into three parts, some into more. On the tops of the branches stand small, pale, yellow flowers, consisting of five leaves, like the flowers of cinquefoil, but larger, in the middle whereof stand a small green herb, which when the flower is fallen, groweth to be round, being made of many long greenish purple seeds (like grains) which will stick upon your clothes. The root consists of many brownish strings or fibres, smelling somewhat like unto cloves, especially those which grow in the higher, hotter, and drier grounds, and in free and clear air.
Place. They grow wild in many places under hedges' sides, and by the path-ways in fields; yet they rather delight to grow in shadowy than sunny places.
Time. They flower in May and June for the most part, and their seed is ripe in July at the farthest.
Government and virtues. It is governed by Jupiter, and that gives hopes of a wholesome healthful herb. It is good for the diseases of the chest or breast, for pains, and stiches in the side, and to expel crude and raw humours from the belly and stomach, by the sweet savour and warming quality. It dissolves the inward congealed blood happening by falls or bruises, and the spitting of blood, if the roots, either green or dry, be boiled in wine and drank; as also all manner of inward wounds or outward, if washed or bathed therewith. The decoction also being drank, comforts the heart, and strengtheneth the stomach and a cold brain, and therefore is good in the spring-time to open obstructions of the liver, and helps the wind cholic; it also helps those that have fluxes, or are bursten, or have a rupture; it taketh away spots or marks in the face, being washed therewith. The juice of the fresh root, or powder of the dried root, hath the same effect with the decoction. The root in the spring time steeped in wine, give it delicate savour and taste, and being drank fasting every morning, comforteth the heart, and is a good preservative against the plague, or any other poison. It helpeth digestion, and warmeth a cold stomach, and openeth obstructions of the liver and spleen.
It is very safe; you need have no dose prescribed; and is very fit to be kept in every body's house.’

Culpepper describes it as follows: