Plant of the Week

Ranunculus jovis range map.
Ranunculus jovis range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Ranunculus jovis
Ranunculus jovis blooms early in the spring as soon as the snow melts. Photo © R.G. Johnson.

Ranunculus jovis
Close-up of the diminutive Ranunculus jovis. Photo © R. G. Johnson.

Jupiter Buttercup (Ranunculus jovis)

By Walter Fertig

How in heaven did a pretty yellow wildflower with stems no more than four inches tall get the name of Jupiter buttercup? The species epithet “jovis” and the common name both come from Jove or Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system and the all-powerful god of sky and thunder in Roman mythology. Wyoming botanist Aven Nelson came up with the name in 1900 to commemorate “The Thunderer”, a peak in the Absaroka mountains of northeastern Yellowstone National Park where the type collection was made, and not to be facetious about the little buttercup’s unimposing stature.

The Jupiter buttercup is one nearly 80 species of Ranunculus found in North America. Like most buttercups, it has flowers with five bright yellow petals and a ball-like head of numerous 1-seeded fruits. Leaves of Jupiter buttercup are deeply three-lobed and resemble the foot of a bird (another common name for Ranunculus is crowfoot). The uppermost leaves sometimes form a whorl surrounding the relatively large flowers. But the Jupiter buttercup’s most distinctive feature cannot be seen aboveground. It is the cluster of fleshy, thick roots that resemble miniature baseball bats.

Why the thick roots? Perhaps they store a sufficient amount of food to let Jupiter buttercup produce its showy flowers almost as soon as the ground thaws in early spring. Some years, this species has been observed in flower as early as February, though more often blossoms appear from March to June, depending on the elevation where the plants occur. Jupiter buttercup grows mostly in high mountain meadows, maple thickets, or sagebrush communities and flowers are frequently seen in moist areas below melting snowbanks.

As buttercups go, Ranunculus jovis is one of the less frequently seen species. Its native range extends from southwestern Montana to eastern Idaho, northern Utah, and northern Colorado. Additional reports from Nevada are apparently based on misidentifications of the somewhat similar Sagebrush buttercup (R. glaberrimus), a related species with taller stems, less deeply divided leaves, and fibrous roots. The apparent scarcity of Jupiter buttercup may also be related to its early flowering period and low stature (fruiting plants can be hard to see once the petals fall off). So, head out to the mountains early, because this is one pretty buttercup you don’t want to miss.

NOTE: The following is an additional article submitted for Celebrating Wildflowers about the same species, Ranunculus jovis. Jupiter buttercup and Utah buttercup are different common names for the same species.

Utah Buttercup (Ranunculus jovis)

By Charmaine Delmatier (2016)

Ranunculus jovis
Utah buttercup, Ranunculus jovis. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Ranunculus jovis habitat
Utah buttercup, Ranunculus jovis, habitat. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Ranunculaceae, commonly known as the buttercup or crowfoot family, has a global distribution with about 60 genera and 1,700 species. They are more abundant in temperate and cooler regions on both the northern and southern hemispheres. Most know this family for its delicate and beautiful yellow buttercups (Ranunculus) or for its vibrant purple larkspurs (Delphinium), both are found in many gardens or scattered across the wild countryside. In North America, there are approximately 22 genera and 284 species. Of those, according to Alan T. Whittmore with the Flora of North America, there are 300 species of Ranunculus worldwide; of which, 76 of those occur in North America.

The Latin derivative for Ranunculaceae is rānunculus for "little frog", and more specifically from rāna for "frog." In comparison, Utah buttercup is not frog-like, but instead delicate and fragile. It starts flowering in April, across the interior states of North America including Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. This small unassuming buttercup, no taller than three inches, is one of the first to brave an early spring on high mountain dryer slopes where snow has recently receded. With both hungry small rodents and larger mammals searching for fresh herbaceous greens to eat after a long winter, it must be prolific to survive.

Between 5,600 and 9,900 feet, you will find this diminutive buttercup with its five bright-yellow petals and showy green leaves. The basal almost lime-green leaves are persistent and divided into three leaflets with the lateral leaflets sometimes again lobed. The main stems are erect and bear one to four flowers. The petals are a mere 6 to 12 millimeters long. The entire plant is mostly glabrous (without hairs).

Historically, fresh leaves from some species of Ranunculus have been used as an external rubefacient for rheumatism, gout, arthritis, and neuralgia (topically or externally). It is directly applied to warts. A rubefacient is used as a topical application, which produces redness of the skin, usually by causing dilation of the capillaries (vasodilation) and possibly an increase in blood circulation. Since the action is based directly on irritating the affected part, the effects may be more toxic than eczema, warts, boils and abscesses themselves, thus winning the battle against these skin disorders. It has also been reported that a tincture may be both externally applied or taken internally to treat shingles and sciatica. For delicate buttercups, they are a strong ally against some grim skin disorders.

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Common Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta).
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