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Most of the local species of buttercup, spearwort or crowfoot are easy to recognise, and make an interesting study. There are 13 species recorded in the county.
The buttercups are all poisonous plants to some degree, and are especially dangerous to livestock since they commonly occur in pastures. They have no economic uses, though the prettier species are grown in gardens.
The lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) if first to flower, showing bright golden-yellow petals which are greenish underneath, fading to white, above heart-shaped glossy dark-green leaves. Common at watersides, clifftops and in woodland, it even penetrates into moorlands and has been found all over the county. The name celandine comes from the Greek "Khelidon" - a swallow. Gerard's Herball written in 1633 explains that it is not because it flowers when the swallows arrive, but because the swallow was reputed to heals its own eyes if they were damaged, and the juice of the greater celandine was "good to sharpen the sight". The lesser celandine earned its name by comparison with the greater, although the greater is not a buttercup.
There are three other common yellow-flowered plants of grassy places. The lesser spearwort (R. flammula) growing in wet places is immediately identified by its spearheaded-shaped leaves. The meadow buttercup (R. acris) can be confused with that garden pest the creeping buttercup (R. repens), but the meadow buttercup does not creep along the ground and the creeping buttercup has a furrowed flower stalk. Incidentally there is a clifftop subspecies of lesser spearwort - R. flammula ssp. minimus and Holborn Head is one of its few stations in Europe.
A less common yellow-flowered buttercup occurring only in the mineral-rich grassland of dune links and dry calcareous banks is the bulbous buttercup (R. bulbosus), which can be recognised by its drooping green speals hanging below the flower. It is recorded recently from Dunnet and Reay (but not Keiss though it is probably there to be found), Thurso and N. Wick. There are older records from the Dunbeath and Berriedale areas.
Even more scarce is the Goldilocks buttercup (R. auricomus) found in only two sites. Its yellow petals vary on the one flower from large through small to absent, but the distinctive shape of the basal and stem leaves permits accurate identification.
Another rarity is the celery-leaved buttercup @'R. sceleratus) which lives in wet shallows near Wick. The stout celery-like stem is topped by small yellow buttercup flowers. Two other plants close to true buttercups should be mentioned here: Trollius europaeus, the globeflower, has beautiful spherical flowers of pale gold, with leaves not unlike the meadow buttercup, and grows on river banks in Caithness where it is frequently encountered; the marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is easily recognised in its watery habitat by its clusters of large golden- yellow flowers above leaves bluish-green, kidney shaped with toothed edges.
Three white-flowered crowfoots can be found, all liking to live under water or in wet shallows of burns ditches, ponds and lochs. The ivy-leaved crowfoot (Ranunculus hederaceus) has only its distinctively shaped floating leaves; the thread-leaved water-crowfoot (R. trichophyllus) has only fine thread-like leaves, while the common water-crowfoot (R. aquatilis) has both thread-like submerged leaves and round lobed floating leaves. They are all fairly common species, with R. aquatilis preferring the east side of the county. In brackish water the thread-leaved water-crowfoot should be replaced by the closely similar R. baudotii, but this has never been recorded in the county.