Kids and Critters: Does this flower know if you like butter?
July is finally here and for many of us that means the longest days of the year can be spent outside. I remember spending hours on end running and playing in the woods and fields around my home when I was a kid. Sometimes my friends and I would go on long walks or bike rides and we’d look for a large tree so we could stop and eat our lunch in the shade. Ah, those were the good lazy days of summer.
It was always at times like this — well- fed on a picnic lunch and not terribly interested in the chore of making the return trip home right away — that someone would invariably start playing some sort of game with the flowers around us. If there were dandelions, then we’d compete to see who could make their “heads” pop off the farthest. If there was sturdy grass, then someone (or everyone) would put a piece of leaf between their thumbs and try to make the loudest noise possible. And, or course, we always kept our eyes open for buttercups.
The question was a simple one: do you like butter? The answer was also simple: yes. And who wouldn’t? Butter, by my estimation, is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. The only thing that might be better is bacon. Butter, however, had a simple ceremony associated with it. To discern one’s affinity for the churned ambrosia that is butter, one simply needed to find a buttercup flower and hold it under the chin. A yellow glow indicated a passion for butter, while a lack of a yellow glow hinted at something akin to demonic possession. Who doesn’t like butter?
Well, it turns out that the flower itself virtually guarantees a positive response to the question because of the way the flower is made. A buttercup is a small flower (the diameter of a quarter at best) with five broad petals. Although all buttercup flowers look the same, none of them are identical because the flower petals may have different folds and indentations along the outer edges. Thus, every flower (every petal) is just a little different.
The characteristic that they all share, however, is the fact that the petals are all shiny. It would be very easy to make a fake buttercup flower out of plastic because they already look like they’re made out of thin, shiny sheets of plastic. This is the secret to why everyone loves butter.
Hold a buttercup flower under a person’s chin and you will see a yellow glow because the shiny surface of each petal reflects yellow light. Thus, the true secret to one’s feelings about butter is the intensity of the sunlight on any particular day. The brighter the sun, the more light there is for the buttercup flower to reflect onto one’s chin.
What you might not know about buttercups is just how many different types there are. The most familiar of the group would probably have to be the tall buttercup (Ranunculus acris). This nonnative species can grow to be about 3 feet tall and presents its flowers at the tips of long, slender stems. This is probably why this particular species is so well known because it goes out of its way to make sure its flowers are easily visible.
The leaves of the tall buttercup are as delicate and intricate as lace. Imagine a fan-shaped, five-pronged snowflake with long, slender fingers and you’ve got the right idea. You could make a leaf like this by cutting folded paper, but you would need extremely sharp and slender scissors to do it.
I hope you have a wonderful summer and I hope you are able to enjoy a picnic tomorrow, which is the Fourth of July. If you are lucky enough to find a buttercup, be sure to test everyone’s love for butter. Also, take note of the amount of sun that hits the flower and see if you can make everyone’s chin glow yellow.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com