Ranunculus bulbosus. Bulbous Crowfoot.
It is a remarkable fact that a great portion of the weeds, which are most troublesome in the United States, are of European origin, having introduced themselves since the discovery of this country. Some of these emigrants have settled in our grazing and mowing lands, such as the Ranunculus bulbosus, acris and repens, indiscriminately called Buttercups, Crowfoot, and Yellow weed; the Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, or White weed; the Rumex acetosella, or Sorrel; the Hypericum perforatum, or St. John's wort, &c. In our cornfields and gardens are quartered the Couch grass, Triticum repens; the different species of Goosefoot or Pig weed, Chenopodium; the Dock, Rumex crispus, &c.; the Charlock or Wild Radish, Raphanus Raphanistrum; Burdock, Arctium lappa, §c. Some have commenced their inroads within a few years, such as the Cnicus arvensis, improperly called Canada thistle; the Genista tinctoria or Dyer's weed, &c. —In return for these introductions, we have sent them the Erigeron Canadense, and the prolific families of Ambrosia and Amaranthus.
No race of plants is more familiarly known than the Ranunculi. Of numerous species, both native and imported, which we possess; several resemble each other so nearly, as to pass with common observers for the same plant. The great similarity of their properties renders it almost unnecessary in a medical or economical point of view to distinguish them. I have selected the bulbous-rooted species, not because it is more active in its properties than many others, but because it is one of the most common and best known.
The genus belongs to the class Polyandria, and order Polygynia. It is found in the natural orders Multisiliquae, Linn, and Ranunculaceae, Juss. Its generic character is formed by a five leaved calyx; five petals, with a melliferous pore at the base of each; the seeds naked. No genus can be more strictly natural than this. A general resemblance pervades the whole of the species, which indicates their consanguinity at sight. The nectary, the never failing concomitant of this genus, is a small cavity at the inside of the claw of each petal, generally covered by a flat scale, sometimes surrounded with a concave brim, and at others inclosed in a short cylinder. A subtle and violent acrimony, on which the medical properties seem to depend, is found in most, if not in all, of the species.
The species bulbosus has compound leaves, an erect many flowered stem, a furrowed peduncle, reflexed calyx, and bulbous root. It grows generally in dry pastures, mowing lands and road sides, flowering abundantly in May and the first part of June, after which it gives place to its equally abundant successors, R. acris and repens, which, however, generally prefer a more moist soil. These three species, having flowers of similar size and appearance, are indiscriminately known by the name of Buttercups. Their distinction affords a pleasing instance of different combinations of features, forming separate characters for similar plants. The B. bulbosus has a furrowed flower-stalk and reflexed calyx; B. repens a furrowed flower-stalk and spreading calyx, and B. acris a round flower-stalk and spreading calyx.
A more particular description of the plant in our figure is as follows. Root fleshy, solid, roundish, depressed, sending out radicles from its under side. In autumn it gives off lateral bulbs near its top, which afford plants for the next year, while the old root decays. Stems several, erect, round, hairy, branching. Root leaves on long petioles, ternate, sometimes quinate; the segments variously cut, lobed and toothed; hairy. Stem leaves sessile, ternate, the upper ones more simple. Flowers several on a stem, solitary, of a bright glossy yellow. Peduncles furrowed, angular, hairy. Calyx leaves oblong, hairy, bent back against the peduncle. Petals five, inversely heart shaped; the nectary at the claw covered with a small wedge-shaped emarginate scale. Stamens numerous, yellow, with oblong erect anthers. Germs numerous with reflexed stigmas. Fruit a spherical head composed of acute, naked, diverging seeds with recurved points.
The roots of Ranunculus bulbosus appear to consist principally of albumen intermixed with ligneous fibres. If the root he macerated in cold water, it gives a solution of this substance, which coagulates in flocks on the application of heat; and undergoes the same process slowly on the admixture of alcohol. But the most interesting constituent in this, and in most other species, is the acrid principle which pervades every part of the plant in its green state. Like the acrimony of the Arum, it is volatile, and disappears in drying, or upon the application of heat. It differs, however, in not being destroyed by a moderate heat, and in being fully preserved in distillation. I have subjected various species of Ranunculus to this experiment, and always found the distilled water to possess a strong acrimony; while the decoction and portions of the plant remaining in the retort were wholly destitute of this property. This distilled water, when first taken into the mouth, excited no particular effect; but after a few seconds a sharp, stinging sensation was always produced. When swallowed, a great sense of heat took place in the stomach. I preserved some of the water distilled from leaves of Ranunculus repens, for several months in a close stopped phial; during which time it retained its acrimony undiminished. In winter time it froze, and on thawing had lost this property. Tilebein, as quoted by Dr. Pulteney, in some experiments on this genus of plants, found that water distilled from R. sceleratus, on cooling, deposited small crystals, which were hardly soluble in any menstruum, and were of an inflammable nature. I have not met with an appearance of this kind. The distilled water, however, had a substance dissolved in sufficient quantity to yield a gradual precipitate with some reagents, such as muriate of tin and acetate of lead. The strength of the distilled water is impaired by continuing the operation too long. The acrimony of the plant is expended in a very short time at the boiling heat, and a farther continuance of the distillation brings over only water.
Since the time of Dioscorides [Note A.] the acrid and stimulating properties of the Ranunculi have been well known. This acrimony resides in all the species, with the exception of R. auricomus, which is said to be mild, and perhaps two or three others. It is so powerful that it speedily inflames or corrodes the lips and tongue, if kept in contact with them. In the nostrils it acts as a violent sternutatory, and if swallowed in considerable quantity, it brings on great pain, heat and inflammation of the stomach, and has even occasioned convulsions and death.
[Note A. Ranunculi, quod aliqui apium agreste nominant, plura quidem sunt genera: at vis tarnen omnibus una, acris scilicet ac vehementer exulcerans. Ac unum quidem coriandri foliis constat, sed latioribus, subalbidis et pinguibus: flore lúteo, interdùm purpureo. Caulis minime crassus est, sed cubitum al tus. Radice nititur exigua, candida et amara, adnatis ceu capillamentis, hellebori modo, fibrata: juxta fluenta nascitur. Alterum est lanuginosius, longioreque caule, pluribus foliorum incisuris, plurimum in Saridinia proveniens, acerrimum, quod etiam sylvestre apium appellant. Est et tertium valde parvum et odore gravi; flore aureo. Quartum simile huic, flore lacteo. Folia et caules tenelli vim habent illitu exulcerandi, et usque adeò urendi, ut etiam crustas cum dolore inducant. Quare scabros ungues auferunt, psoras removent, stigmata delent: itemque formicationes ac pensiles verrucas et alopecias ad breve tempus imposita tollunt. Quin et repente eorum decocto perniones foventur. Radix vero sicca tritaque, sternutamenta ciet, naribus admota; dentium quoque dolores appensa levât, ipsos tarnen rumpit.
Dioscorides. Interp. Sarraceni, Lib. ii. Cap. 206.]
Before the introduction of Cantharides as a vesicatory, different species of Ranunculus were used upon the skin, as external stimulants. Their power of occasioning erosion and ulceration appears to have been known to the ancients. Different medical writers have given accounts of their mode of operation; but the most extensive history and investigation is that of Krapf, published at Vienna, in 1766. This work, which I have not seen, is quoted in all its principal facts by Professor Murray of Göttingen in the Apparatus medicaminum. According to this author the various species, with which his experiments were made, proved capable of exciting inflammation, blistering and ulceration, when applied to the skin. A slice of the fresh root of R. bulbosus placed in contact with the inside of the finger, brought on a sense of burning in two minutes. When taken off, the skin was found without redness, and the sense of heat and itching ceased. In two hours, however, it returned again, and in ten hours a full serous blister was raised. This was followed by an ulcer of bad character and difficult to heal. He remarks that, if the application is continued after the first itching, the pain and subsequent erosion is much greater.
From the accounts given of this species, also of R. sceleratus, R. acris, and some others, it appears that the leaves, flowers, buds, or roots of these plants, if bruised and applied to the skin, excite redness and vesication. This effect is not constant, but fails to take place in certain constitutions or at certain seasons of the year. Generally, however, they are said to operate in half an hour, or less, from the time of their application. They are stated to possess the advantage over blisters made by flies, that they never occasion symptoms of strangury.
With a view to their external stimulus they have been used advantageously in rheumatism, the hip disease, hemicrania, and fixed pains of various descriptions. Among the old practitioners, who have recorded instances of their effects, are Baglivi, Storck, and Sennertius. A curious practice, at one time, prevailed in several countries in Europe, of applying the Ranunculus to the wrists or fingers, for the cure of intermittent fever. This is mentioned by Van Swieten, Tissot, and some others. In hemicrania it was applied to the head, and in this case it did not produce a discharge, nor break the skin; but occasioned tumefaction of the hairy scalp.
An objection against the use of the Ranunculi, as external stimulants, exists in the uncertainty of their operation, and the violent effects which sometimes have followed after they had been applied. Those writers, who have witnessed their application, record instances in which these vegetable blisters have been followed by deep, ill-conditioned and sloughing ulcers, which were not healed without great difficulty. Tissot mentions an instance, in which an application made to the thumb caused a deep, painful ulcer, which penetrated to the bone, and occupied some months in its cure. In another case the blister spread, in a few hours, over the whole arm, occasioning fever and delirium, and was followed by such a tendency to gangrene, that the limb was with difficulty saved. Chesnau, quoted by Murray, advises that the Ranunculus should be applied to a small surface only, and through a perforation in an adhesive plaister, to prevent it from spreading. From want of this caution, he had known extensive inflammation to arise and spread over a greater part of the face, neck, and breast.
Linnaeus, in his Flora Suecica, relates that beggars, in Sweden, were known to excite ulcerations of their feet with the Ranunculus sceleratus, to assist them in extorting charity from passengers.
I know not to what extent the efficacy of the Ranunculi, externally applied, can be depended on. Certain it is that they do not affect all persons alike, and this fact is avowed by those who have used them most. I have repeatedly made applications of the contused roots and leaves of different species to my arm and hand, and worn them for a dozen hours, without feeling any particular sensation, or perceiving any visible effect. The rapid drying up of the moisture of the plant seemed to prevent it from acting upon the skin. I am inclined to believe, there is something in the action of these vegetables analogous to that of the poisonous species of Rhus described in this work; which some individuals, but not all, are susceptible of. The extensive and spreading inflammation, which they occasionally produce, resembles more the effect of these shrubs, than of any of the ordinary rubefacients or vesicants.
The burning sensation which the Ranunculi excite in the mouth when chewed, extends to the stomach if they are swallowed. Krapf states that a small portion of a leaf or flower of R. sceleratus, or two drops of the juice, excited acute pain in the stomach, and a sense of inflammation in the throat. He gave a large quantity of the juice to a dog, which brought on vomiting and great distress; and the animal being killed, was found with the stomach inflamed and contracted, and the pylorus hardly pervious. The same author informs us that dilution greatly diminishes the power of this fluid, so that half a drachm of the juice, in six ounces of water, may be taken with entire safety.
Dr. Withering, as quoted by Dr. Pulteney in the Linnaean transactions, asserts, that the distilled water of Ranunculus flammula is an emetic more instantaneous and less offensive than sulphate of zinc. I know not in what publication of Dr. W. this statement is made, but the fact appears to me not improbable. Acrid substances, such as mustard, pepper, and horse-radish, if swallowed in large quantities, excite the stomach to relieve itself by vomiting. An objection, however, exists against the distilled water, owing to the uncertainty of its strength; which must vary in proportion to the quantity of the plant employed, the time occupied in distillation, and the subsequent time for which the fluid is kept.
Krapf states that R. auricomus and R. lanuginosa are so free from acrimony, that they are eaten as greens or sallads. All the species lose their pungency in boiling, so that even the R. sceleratus, one of the most acrid, is used for the same purpose.
Grazing cattle generally avoid the plants of this genus, which grow among grass, as far as it is possible for them to do it. Accordingly we observe the flowers of Ranunculi left untouched, while the grass is closely cropped around them. It is nevertheless unavoidable, so common are these plants, that portions of them should be eaten very often by these animals. It is probable that small quantities of the less acrid sorts do them no injury. At least, it appears that their stomachs are much less susceptible to this kind of stimulus than ours. In the Pan Suecus some experiments upon these plants, with domestic animals, are detailed; in which, it is stated that, horned cattle refused to eat all the species when offered to them, except R. auricomus. This species was rejected by horses, while they would eat R. flammula. Sheep and goats eat the R. acris, one of the most pungent species. Dr. Pulteney states, as a well known fact, that hogs, in England, devour the roots of R. bulbosus. How it is that these animals resist the deleterious effects of so virulent plants, it is not easy to say. It is, however, a not more remarkable fact, than the power of some animals to devour Cantharides and even mineral poisons with impunity.
In their dry state, various species of Ranunculus enter into the composition of hay, particularly R. acris. Having lost their acrimony altogether in drying, they are harmless and probably nutritive.
Dr. Pulteney has published a memoir in the Linnaean transactions on the economical use of some of the Ranunculi, particularly the R. fluviatilis, which he considers a variety of R. aquatilis. Contrary to the common effects of the other species, this plant is said, by him, to be not only innocent, but highly nutritive to cattle. He states that, "in the neighbourhood of Ringwood, on the borders of the Avon, which affords this vegetable in great abundance all the year, some of the cottagers sustain their cows, and even horses, almost wholly upon this plant; since the remaining part of their food is nothing more than a scanty pittance, they get on the adjacent heath, which affords little more than Ling, Lichen, Bogmoss or Sphagnum, &c. It is usual to employ a man to collect a quantity for the day every morning, and bring it in the boat to the edge of the water, from which the cows, in the instance seen, stood eating it with great avidity. I was indeed informed," says he, "they relished it so highly, that it was unsafe to allow them more than a certain quantity; I think between twenty five and thirty pounds daily, each; but with variation according to circumstances. The cows I saw were apparently not in a mean condition, and gave a sufficient quantity of good milk. I was told by the person whose cattle were feeding on it, that he kept five cows and one horse so entirely on this plant and what the heath afforded, that they had not consumed half a ton of hay throughout the whole year; none being used except when the river was frozen over. I examined the whole parcel on which four cows were feeding, in the beginning March, and found the whole consisted exclusively of the Ranunculus fluviatilis without any mixture of the Potamogeton, Carex, Sparganium, or other aquatic plants. In summer, however, it can hardly be avoided but that there must be a mixture of some of these, but other plants are not chosen.
"This account was confirmed to me by different persons; by whom I was further informed that hogs are also fed with the same plant, on which they improve so well, that it is not necessary to allow them other sustenance, till it is proper to put them up to fatten."
In Veterinary practice the Ranunculus bulbosus has been employed as an external stimulant. To this purpose Dr. Chapman, in his Therapeutics, thinks it may be better adapted than other topical excitants.
Ranunculus bulbosus, Linn. Sp. pl.
Curtis, Flora Lond. i. 38.
Martyn, Flora rustica, t. 28.
Smith, Flora Britt. 591.
Engl. Bot. t.. 515.
Michaux, i. 321.
Pursh, ii. 393.
Ranunculus tuberosus magor, J. Bauhin, iii. 417.
Ranunculus pratensis, &c.
Oeder, Fl. Dan. t. 515.
Murray, Apparatus, Med. iii. 88.
Krapf. Ranunculi. Vienna, 1766.
Lewis, Mat. Med. ii. 262.
B. S. Barton, 23.
Pulteney, Lin. transactions, v. 14.
Chapman, Therapeutics, ii. 411.