Once you start knowing the names of plants, your landscape changes entirely. Trees are no longer just trees—they’re maples and aspens and silver birches. Meadows aren’t filled with blue, yellow, and red wildflowers—they’re home to chicory and buttercups and fireweed. Knowing the names of things also allows you to see and name patterns. You start to realize that those thin-stemmed flowers with feathered, three-lobed leaves that you saw at the florist look an awful lot like the skinny little weeds that bolt up from the sidewalk near your house. You start to see how blossoms with swirls of intricately layered petals can be the sisters of flowers with just five lemon-yellow petals. When you begin to learn their various names, you begin to understand how their roots intertwine, how their histories align, how their mythology has been built, layer by layer, over the centuries. A rose by another name may still be a rose, but a buttercup, when called by another name, tells an entirely new story.
“Coyote’s eyes” is a relatively common folk name for buttercups, and it’s possible this name comes from the simple fact that coyotes have yellow-gold eyes that glow in the dark. They’re one of the first flowers that many people learn to identify, thanks to the old “Do you like butter?” game, which involves holding a buttercup under the chin of a child. If their chin shines yellow (it almost always does—buttercups have reflective petals) then the answer is affirmative. It’s the kind of cutesy nonsense that adults foist on kids and that kids, being smarter than most people, quickly abandon.
In Terry Tafoya’s tale, “Coyote’s Eyes,” the fabled trickster, Coyote, sees Rabbit and hears the long-eared beast begin to sing. As Rabbit croons, his eyeballs leave his sockets and fly up into the air, perching on a tree branch. “Whee-num, come here,” says Rabbit, and his eyes flew back into his skull.
Coyote begs Rabbit to teach him how to perform this weird bit of magic, and Rabbit complies, with one warning: “You must never do this more than four times in one day,” he said. “Or something terrible will happen to you.”
Of course, Coyote does perform the flying eyeball trick five times and, naturally, something awful happens. After spying the set of little round jelly balls sitting in a tree, Crow swoops down and takes off with Coyote’s eyes. The disobedient rogue is forced to fashion himself a new pair of eyes. He decides to use a pair of yellow flowers, which fit neatly onto his face and cast the world with a golden glow. This, according to legend, is why many people still call buttercups “Coyote’s eyes.”
There are some problems with this story. Tafoya was a skilled grifter who faked his credentials in order to secure a position as a professor at Evergreen State College. He most likely never got his Ph.D. And although he toured the country during the nineties and 2000s as a storyteller and member of the Taos Pueblo, Tafoya didn’t grow up in New Mexico. He wasn’t a member of the tribe. This wasn’t his culture, these weren’t his stories, and that wasn’t his education. Perhaps this is why he told so many stories about Coyote. He was a trickster, too, and like Coyote, Tafoya eventually received his comeuppance. But people do call buttercups “Coyote’s eyes.” That part is true, and the legend is (as far as I can tell) a real one.
Buttercups, despite their wholesome name, are, like all members of the Ranunculaceae family, poisonous. Ranunculacae contain protoanemonin, a toxin that can cause itching and stinging (if applied topically) or nausea, vomiting, dizziness, jaundice, or paralysis (if ingested in large enough quantities). The group gets its name from the Latin word for “little frogs,” probably because these flowers tend to grow near ponds, bogs, and streams. These flowers generally like the damp edges of things—meadows on the edge of the woods, ditches next to the road, overwatered lawns, the marshy area over septic tanks, et cetera. There are over two thousand species covered under the Ranunculacae umbrella, and they like to grow in places with seasons. Typically, they don’t mind the cold (there are species native to Siberia and Alaska), but they’re not crazy about the tropics. They’re also very old. Fossils of Vernifolium tenuiloba, an ancient relative of the buttercup, were unearthed on George Washington’s estate back in the late 1800s. Researchers estimate that these plants lived around 105 million years ago—before bees came on the scene.
While the most immediately recognizable member of the family is the humble buttercup (the whole family is often referred to as the “buttercup family,” which is easier to spell than Ranunculacae), you probably know a few others as well. First of all, there’s the anemone, which looks a decent amount like the buttercup, thanks to its single layer of thin, delicate petals that often glow with a reflective sheen. But while buttercups are known for their sunny hue, anemone are more easily recognized when dressed in white or red. In her musings on the flower, Edith Zimmerman emphasizes the sparseness of its form, writing that there is something “naked, minimalist, and hungry about certain kinds of anemones, like they’ve undressed a step too far, thrown out too many of their possessions, or lost a little too much weight.” In the language of flowers (and in Zimmerman’s personal catalog of symbols), anemones signify loss. According to Greek mythology, crimson anemones first sprung up where Venus wept over the body of Adonis as he lay bleeding out, gored by a boar. (In other versions, Venus poured some magical elixir on the spot, turning his blood into “wind-flowers.”) Another story says that the flower was named after a nymph—the name is Greek for “daughter of the wind”—who was punished for sleeping with Chloris’s husband, Zephyr. The pretty nymph was banished and turned into a thin-stemmed blossom.
“Anemones’ ominousness seems to have cut across cultures,” Zimmerman observes. In various places, the flower has been associated with sickness and death. Some, like the Romans, used them to heal, and the early residents of England carried them as charms against the plague. This was ineffective, as the nursery rhyme points out. Even with pockets full of posies, the inflicted still died, and a handful of petals couldn’t have been enough to mask the scent of hundreds of thousands of corpses.
In contrast to the frail loveliness of the anemone, the hellebore is a rare member of the Ranunculacae family that looks as sinister as its sap. There are twenty different species of hellebore, and most of them are fairly easy to identify. The classic hellebore has five broad petals that encircle the protruding sex organs of the flower. They come in moody colors, like indigo, maroon, and sickly green. They tend to droop downward; if flowers could have slumped shoulders, the hellebore would. They look angry yet exhausted, each blossom a bruised cyclops.
While you might assume that their name comes from the Germanic word for Hades, it’s more likely from the Greek words elein (to injure) and bora (food). Put them together and you get injurious food, food that hurts. Ancient Greek physicians knew that ingesting hellebore caused vomiting, but they also thought it could be good for you, when given in just the right dose. Tinctures of hellebore were ingested to cure madness and melancholia. Bits of hellebore root were sometimes inserted into the ear to cure deafness. This plant was so powerful that Pliny the Elder even recommended enacting a ritual—which was not to be performed on cloudy days and involved drawing a circle around the plant, facing east, and praying—before digging up its roots. Some folktales also associate the hellebore with powers of invisibility and flight.
The classical and witchy myths associated with anemones and hellebores were written over, altered to fit the monotheistic world order. Yule (a Germanic pagan celebration that occurred annually around midwinter and involved lots of drinking and feasting and fornicating) was recast under Christianity as “Christmas.” In Renaissance art, red anemones were used to symbolize the spilled blood of Christ and the grief of his weeping mother. Certain species of hellebore became known as the “Christmas rose” (for those that bloomed near midwinter) or the “Lenten rose” (for those smaller flowers that appear after the spring thaw). In the medieval period, many flowers lost their pagan powers and served instead as visual nods to Mary (lilies and columbine), Jesus (anemone and roses), and the Holy Trinity (white tulips and pansies). In regions where Catholicism reigned supreme, flowers tended to play a supporting role in fine art. They were vehicles for conveying messages about power and fealty, loyalty to the church and state.
Things were a bit different up in northern Europe. Following the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s, artists were forbidden to depict religious figures. Famous artists painted portraits and landscapes and scenes from history, while artists on the margins (including female artists) turned their focus to still lifes, a more “vulgar” genre (as Twitter user @Iron_Spike explained in a recent viral thread). Still lifes began to really pick up steam in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and many of these pieces included wilting or fading flowers in their compositions. Wilted flowers could represent a lot of things, depending on the species chosen, but often these overflowing vases served as reminders that, well, we all fall down. Even pretty flowers grow bruised and brown, and no matter how much wealth you accumulate in life, you’ll still die alone. We all do.
This brings me to my fourth favorite buttercup: the ranunculus. These frilly babies look the least like roadside weeds, but they’re members of the same family and harbor the same toxin in their stems and leaves. While you’ll spot the occasional buttercup or anemone in baroque Flemish flower paintings, ranunculus were far more common. Rachel Ruysch included them in several of her vibrant oil compositions, as did Jan Brueghel the Elder, Clara Peeters, and Maria van Oosterwijck. Textured yet tight, with pointed, delicate leaves, ranunculus were perfect for a still life. They added shape and motion, and they wilted with a good deal of drama.
While the sixteenth and seventeenth century’s still-life painters attempted to render their subjects as realistically as possible, the modernists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were all about simplifying objects down to their most basic forms. European modernists existed outside the artistic establishment, so it was no surprise that they embraced the low genres, including the still life. Vincent van Gogh is perhaps most famous for his sunflowers, but he also painted wild, messy bouquets composed of various species. He was close with Charles-François Daubigny, a painter of the Barbizon school, and admired the Barbizon painter’s garden greatly. In 1890, he painted a series showing this flowering paradise. Later, when he was recouping from a bout of depression in Saint Paul Hospital, Van Gogh spent hours painting the plants and blossoms that grew on their grounds. Anemones are common in his bouquets, smushed into vases with boughs of lilacs and stems of daisies and roses. Often, the anemones appear as a spot of violet darkness, a purple splotch of pain amid the warm summery colors.
Van Gogh’s contemporary, painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, must have had access to loads of anemones because he painted them often. Perhaps he grew them at his family home in Essoyes, France—his studio was set up at the bottom of the garden. In the early 1900s he painted a series of crimson images, often using the same brass vase as the base for the composition. As the years progressed, they became more and more abstract and the petals slowly melted into bloody bright blurs, punctuated with blotches of indigo. Twenty years later, Henri Matisse would begin his own series of anemone images—their round, childlike shape paired well with Matisse’s early fauvist style.
Although buttercups show up often enough in impressionist paintings, they’re usually shown in their natural setting. They’re not really flowers people pick and make bouquets from—they look prettiest when seen from a distance, daubs of cadmium-yellow paint loosely applied to green hills. Hellebores, too, are absent in most fine art, though they make an appearance in The Paris Review’s Spring 2019 issue in Francesco Dimattio’s portfolio of ceramics. Hellebores are not as popular as their siblings, nor as plentiful. Buttercups are too common, hellebore are too rare, but anemone and ranunculus are just right. They’re not as well known as tulips or daffodils, but they seem to occupy a similar space in the floral imagination. This is true in the wedding world, too. In the past decade, I’ve noticed ranunculus creeping into supermarket flower troughs and floral displays. The Knot calls them a “cost-effective alternative to roses or peonies” and puts them at number seven on their list of the ten “most popular wedding flowers ever.” You can get a bunch for $6 at Trader Joe’s or you can buy a bouquet designed by Vogue editors from UrbanStems for $149. Anemone are arguably even more hip. They’re hard to find in the average bouquet, so when you do spot an anemone-rich arrangement, it means someone took the time and effort to source some frail, wild-looking blooms.
I have a fondness for all members of the Ranunculacae family except for the buttercup. It’s a bit too Norman Rockwell for me, though the more I think of them as Coyote’s eyes, the more they appeal. Last year, I planted a dozen hellebore plants along the side of my yard. My wedding bouquet was primarily made of white ranunculus, green mums, and baby’s breath. It was cobbled together last minute by our chosen courthouse witness. That’s what Trader Joe’s had for sale that day, she explained after she presented it to me, out of breath. “I’m sorry it’s ugly,” she said, but it wasn’t. It was mildly toxic and bursting with lore, messy and old-fashioned. According to the Victorian language of flowers, ranunculus means, “I’m dazzled by you.” Even supermarket flowers are capable of saying that much.
Katy Kelleher is a writer who lives in the woods of rural New England with her two dogs and one husband. She is the author of Handcrafted Maine.