Goldilocks Buttercup, Ranunculus auricomus, is unlikely to be the best-dressed flower in spring woodland. It is often found in a somewhat bedraggled and tatty state, minus some or all of its petals. Although imperfect to the eye, it is nonetheless an interesting flower to botanists due to its asexual reproduction, multiple microspecies and status as an ancient woodland indicator.
Goldilocks in the Woods
The Goldilocks Buttercup is considered fairly common in calcareous, deciduous woodland. Is there a connection between the Goldilocks Buttercup and the well-known children’s fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears? A version of the story was first printed in 1837. The original tale is centuries older. The central character underwent an evolution from an old woman to a young girl down the ages. Goldilocks did not feature in the tale until around 1875. Goldilocks was the name for a person with bright yellow or golden hair from the mid-15th century. It has also been verified as a name for the Buttercup from the 1570s.
Yet again, I am drawn to write about a member of the Ranunculaceae or Buttercup family. The Goldilocks Buttercup’s Latin name is Ranunculus auricomus. The genus name means little frog, perhaps denoting its preference for wetter habitats. The epithet auricomus is formed from a compound of aurum meaning gold and coma meaning hair of the head. Thus, the Latin name returns us to Goldilocks again. The name highlights the shiny, bright yellow flowerhead rather than a fairy tale connection.
Ancient Woodland Indicator
The Goldilocks Buttercup may put on a shabby appearance, but it is regarded as the mark of a superior woodland. It is is appreciated as an ancient woodland indicator. Its presence is an indicator of a continuously wooded site since 1600. Only about 2.5% of such ancient woodland sites survive today. Their soils have remained relatively undisturbed by human hands down the centuries. They boast a fascinatingly unique and complex, interdependent range of plants, fungi and insects as a result.
The Flora of Berkshire notes that Goldilocks Buttercup was once locally common and widely distributed in shady places. Latterly, it is not found in any great quantity. The BSBI states that populations are remarkably stable in the UK and that improved recording led to new discoveries in Scotland. The Goldilocks Buttercup can be inconspicuous sprawling through other plants at ground level. My local botany group is including the flower in its spring target species for recording. It will be interesting to find out if the extra attention will lead to the discovery of previously unnoticed colonies.
The plant is apomictic. Apomixis is the botanical term used to describe plants that produce seeds asexually, i.e. without cell division (meiosis) and fertilisation. As a result, Goldilocks Buttercups are clones of the mother plant. They bypass the need for male involvement in reproduction.
Apomictic plants like Goldilocks Buttercups are known as agamospecies. These asexual species challenge long-accepted concepts of what defines a species. Hundreds of agamospecies have been described. UK agamospecies are not fully described. Stace reckons that ultimately over one hundred could gain recognition. Sell and Murrell’s Flora tackled the Goldilocks Buttercup in greater detail publishing 58 species. They preferred to describe variable apomicts as species. Unfortunately, their learned tomes are not within the modest budget of my botanical book collection to consult first hand.
The leaves of Goldilocks Buttercups can be highly variable. The upper and basal leaves differ on the same plant. Linnaeus only recognised two species:
- Ranunculus auricomus native to Western Europe with deeply dissected basal leaves
- Ranunculus cassubicus native to Siberia with basal leaves that are not dissected
Today’s botanists are faced with greater blurring of the lines between species. Should this be seen as sowing confusion or as a challenge? DNA evidence is certainly challenging morphological determination without necessarily achieving the desired definitive clarity.
The incomplete picture regarding Goldilocks Buttercup in the UK could mask vulnerability. A species or subspecies (depending on your preferred terminology) might be revealed as threatened if better understood. Dependence on the mother plant for reproduction leads to isolated, static communities. The unique nature of individual colonies may be overlooked until it is too late. We may be blind to the full extent of the threats posed by their dwindling ancient woodland habitats as well as climate change. What does population stability mean in unstable times?
Gallery of Images
References and Further Reading
- Crawley, Michael J. (2005): Ranunculus auricomus L. Goldilocks Buttercup. The Flora of Berkshire.
- Devlin, Zoë (2008-11): Information on Goldilocks Buttercup. Wildflowers of Ireland.
- Eversham, Brian (): Goldilocks Buttercups Ranunculus auricomus agg. Flickr.
- Harper, Douglas (2001-21): Goldilocks. Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Harrap, Simon (2013): Harrap’s Wildflowers. A Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland. Bloomsbury. p.22
- Karbstein, Kevin et al (2020): Phylogenomics supported by geometric morphometrics reveals delimitation of sexual species within the polyploid apomictic Ranunculus auricomus complex (Ranunculaceae). Taxon. Vol. 69, Issue 6. December 2020.
- McDonnell, E. (2021): Five Spring Woodland Plants to Record – March-June. Somerset Rare Plants Group.
- NatureSpot (2020): Goldilocks Buttercup agg. – Ranunculus auricomus agg.
- Rose, Francis (1999): Indicators of ancient woodland. The use of vascular plants in evaluating ancient woods for nature conservation. British Wildlife. April 1999.
- Sell, Peter & Murrell, Gina (2018): Vol. 5 Introduction. Variation. pdf via BSBI website. Flora of Great Britain & Ireland.
- Stace, Clive (2010): New Flora of the British Isles. Third Edition. Cambridge University Press. p.114.
- Streeter, David et al. (2016): Collins Wild Flower Guide. The Most Complete Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland. 2nd Edition. William Collins. London. p.84.
- UK SouthWest (?): Ranunculus auricomus, Goldilocks Buttercup.
- Wildflowerfinder (?): Goldilocks Buttercup. Woodland Buttercup. Ranunculus auricomus.
- Wilkins, John (2010): How many species concepts are there? Science. The Guardian. 20 October 2010.
- Woodland Trust (?): Ancient Woodland. British Habitats.
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