Buttercup: Gold in them hills!


Contributing columnist

Driving down the road, you might enjoy seeing pasture and hay fields full of lovely yellow flowers, which are buttercups. While I agree they create an attractive scene, they unwelcome to farmers because they compete with the grass for nutrients, sun and other resources, and could impact livestock health.

Buttercups are easy to identify with their cup shaped, five-petaled flowers that are lustrous because of a layer of reflective cells that make them look shiny. Their bloom period is mid-April to May, but they can be showy into summer. There are many species of buttercup worldwide, but the two most often seen in fields locally are hairy and bulbous buttercup. They started out along roadsides, but their propensity to produce heavy seed crops has helped them spread into grass fields and become widespread.

Healthy, well-managed grass is lush enough that it can generally fend off buttercup intrusion by keeping the ground well shaded. But overgrazing and under fertilizing fields can create thin areas where buttercups can get a toe hold and begin to spread. Farmers must often resort to using a broad leaf herbicide to eradicate the weed.

Cows and other livestock are pretty savvy when it comes to eating and will avoid eating buttercup because it has a bitter taste. If you look closely, you will note that cows graze heavily on grass right up to it but not eat it. But if grass is in short supply from drought or overgrazing, livestock may resort to consuming the plant. And if they eat a high enough dose, livestock will develop digestive distress and drool heavily, and may also have diarrhea and bloody urine. Horses are particularly sensitive to buttercup toxicity. Buttercup looses its toxicity when cured out along with grass hay, so it’s not as impactful health wise, but does reduce hay yields.

Some folklore about buttercups include a belief that the rich yellow color of butter originates from cows eating buttercups. And there was a children’s game where a buttercup is held under your chin, and if it reflects a yellow color, then you are fond of butter (I heard this for dandelion as well). While buttercup is also toxic to humans, there is some folk medicine lore purporting it as a treatment for rheumatism, cuts and bruises.

Steve Roark is a volunteer at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.