Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Common Buttercup

Teacher's Story

"The buttercups, bright-eyed and bold,

Held up their chalices of gold

To catch the sunshine and the dew."

Buttercups and daisies are always associated in the minds of the children, because they grow in the same fields; yet the two are so widely different in structure that they may reveal to the child something of the marvelous differences between common flowers; for the buttercup is a single flower, while the single daisy is a large family of flowers.


Do you like butter?

The buttercup sepals are five elongated cups, about one-half as long as the petals; they are pale yellow with brownish tips, but in the globular buds, they are green. The petals are normally five in number, but have a tendency to double, so that often there are six or more; the petals are pale beneath, but on the inside they are most brilliant yellow, and shine as if varnished. Probably it is due to this luminous color that one child is able to determine whether another likes butter or not, by noting when the flower is held beneath the chin, if it makes a yellow reflection; it would be a sodden complexion indeed that would not reflect yellow under this provocation. Each petal is wedge-shaped, and its broad outer edge is curved so as to help make a cuplike flower; if a fallen petal be examined, a tiny scale will be found at its base, as if its point had been folded back a trifle. However, this is not a mere fold, but is a little scale growing there—a scale with a mission, for beneath it is developed the nectar.

When the buttercup first opens, all of the anthers are huddled in the center, so that it looks like a golden nest full of golden eggs. Later the filaments stretch up, lifting the anthers into a loose, rounded tuft, almost concealing the bunch of pistils which are packed close together beneath every stigma, like Br'er Rabbit, "laying low." Later, the filaments straighten back, throwing the anthers in a fringy ring about the pale green pistils; and each pistil sends up a short, yellowish stigma. The anthers open away from the pistils and thus prevent self-pollenation to some degree; they also seem to shed much of their pollen before the stigmas are ready to receive it.

Sometimes petals and sepals fall simultaneously and sometimes first one or the other; but they always leave the green bunch of pistils with a ragged fringe of old stamens clinging to them. Later the seeds mature, making a globular head. Each seed is a true akene; it is flattened and has at its upper end a short, recurved hook which may serve to help it to catch a ride on passers-by. However, the seeds are largely scattered by the winds.

The buttercup grows in sunny situations, in fields and along roadsides, but it cannot stand the shade of the woods. It is a pretty plant; its long stems are downy near the bottom, but smooth near the flower; the leaves show a variety of forms on the same plant; the lower ones have many, (often seven) deeply cut divisions, while the upper ones may have three irregular lobes, the middle one being the longest. Beetles are very fond of the nectar and pollen of buttercups, and therefore are its chief pollen carriers; but flies and small bees and other insects also find their food in these brilliant colored cups.


Buttercup flower enlarged. Note the scale covering the nectar at the base of the falling petal.


The Buttercup

Leading thought—The buttercup grows with the white daisies, in sunny places, but each buttercup is a single flower, while each daisy is a flower family.

Method—Buttercups brought by the pupils to school may serve for this lesson.


1. Look at the back of a flower of the buttercup. What is there peculiar about the sepals? How do the sepals look on the buttercup bud? How do they look later?

2. Look into the flower. How many petals are there? Are there the same number of petals in all the flowers of the same plant? What is the shape of a petal? Compare its upper and lower sides. Take a fallen petal, and look at its pointed base with a lens and note what is there.

3. How do the stamens look? Do you think you can count them? When the flower first opens how are the stamens arranged? How, later? Do the anthers open towards, or away, from the pistils?

4. Note the bunch of pistils at the center of the flower. How do they look when the flower first opens? How, later?

5. When the petals fall, what is left? Can you see now how each little pistil will develop into a seed?

6. Describe the seed-ball and the seed.

7. Look at the buttercup's stems. Are they as smooth near the base as near the flower? Compare the upper leaf with the lower leaf, and note the difference in shape and size.

8. Where do the buttercups grow? Do we find them in the woods? What insects do you find visiting the flowers?

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