Sagebrush buttercup by Jim Ginns
South Okanagan Nature Sagebrush buttercup by Jim Ginns feb 09 photo
Signs of spring arrive early!

When Spring appears in the Okanagan Valley nearly all of Canada is still snow-covered. The Valley’s first Spring wildflower to bloom is the small but pretty Sagebrush Buttercup (or Ranunculus glaberrimus if you prefer the scientific name). Lewis Clark in “Wild Flowers of British Columbia” wrote "Soon after the thin snow has vanished, these bright yellow cups open their cheery faces to the warming sun." In early Spring the buds are flat on the ground at the centre of a spray of several leaves. Soon the stem begins to elongate, pushing the first bloom several centimetres into the air. Typically the stem branches and each branch ends in a flower.
We first encountered this buttercup the year after we moved to the Valley. On January 31, 1999 we hiked up Johnson Spring Creek in northeast Penticton to see if the Red-tailed Hawks had returned to their nest. No hawks were seen and we wandered onto a southwest facing opening with a few scattered pines and a few centimetres of moss, lichen, Selaginella, and a lone clump of cactus hugging the bedrock. At the drip-line of a pine there was a single, new flower of the Sagebrush Buttercup. Although other wildflowers were nearby, none were in flower.
After a few Springs we knew that buttercups are most likely to be on the south or southwest side facing ground under large Ponderosa Pines, and that, with few exceptions, they start to bloom in February. Typically there are a few hundred blooms in the neighbourhood. But in 2008 the rainfall, temperatures, etc occurred in the right sequence and there were thousands of blooms.
A year in the life of a Sagebrush Buttercup plant is varied. The petals fade and drop to the ground when a couple of weeks old. The leaves (think of them as solar panels) have been absorbing energy from the sun and using it to form sugars that are used by the developing seeds or are stored in the roots. By mid summer the ripe seeds have been shed, the stem and leaves have withered, and there is no sign of the plant above ground. The rains of autumn stimulate the dormant roots to form leaves that do their solar panel-thing until they are frozen and covered with snow and ice. In this way Buttercups and several other plants on the hillsides, such as Yarrow and Knapweed, prepare in the Autumn for the Spring flowering. In very early spring (or late winter, if you prefer) the leaves are ready to take advantage of the sun's energy to develop buds and flowers.
At least a dozen different Buttercups grow in the Okanagan Valley. Only the Sagebrush Buttercup survives in the dry grasslands of the Sagebrush/Ponderosa Pine country. Most buttercups prefer moist soil, a couple grow in ponds or ditches with the flowers lying on the water surface, and a few require the cool soils of the higher ridges and mountains.
The South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club will hold their AGM Thursday, February 26; call 250-497-6889 for details.

Jim Ginns
Nature Wise