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Buttercups It's a love-hate relationship with these familiar yet exotic blooms

I have a love-hate relationship with buttercups.

The buttercup is a familiar sight in fields and gardens and can be a friend or foe depending on the variety
The buttercup is a familiar sight in fields and gardens and can be a friend or foe depending on the variety

In wet, shady parts of the garden, I fight an endless battle with Ranunculus repens, aptly named after Rana the frog, our friend from cool and damp parts of the garden. Anchoring itself firmly into the soil, creeping buttercup spreads relentlessly, finding boards and stones no barrier to its questing runners.

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Yet the meadow buttercup, Ranunculus acris, is a favourite - a romantic symbol of traditional meadowland. The long, multi-branched stems bear a mass of glossy yellow flowers gently blowing in the wind.

Ranunculus unarguably has an image problem with gardeners. When it's easy, sometimes all too easy, to grow, it's a boring old buttercup. Luckily though, it fits in nicely with the now fashionable "wild" or prairie garden, so it's enjoying a comeback. And there's also a good selection of cultivars for other parts of the garden.

And, over the past 300 or 400 years, we've blown equally as hot as cold over exotic buttercup species. First introduced to western Europe in the 16th century, Ranunculus asiaticus become a firm favourite with flower enthusiasts. These keen amateurs developed and swapped a range of these buttercups, both singles and doubles. They specialised in the more tender Persian buttercup and developed it into shades of white, yellow, pink, red and even striped. In the mid 18th century, my favourite old Scots gardener, James Justice, grew 100 of the pretty, more delicate Persian varieties as well as 18 hardy and slightly coarse Turkish ones.

Although these ranunculus went out of fashion in the 19th century, there's a wide selection of species and varieties available: plants suitable for damp, soggy, or dry and sunny spots. They come in white, yellow, pink and red.

Some alpine buttercups are difficult to grow, but the vast majority are pretty easy. Ranunculus acris "Citrinus" is a beauty, ideal for damp spots either in full sun or partial shade. The flowering stems grow to around 70cm, bearing yellow-eyed white flowers. Swaying gently on long, wiry stems above the foliage, it looks perfect. Ranunculus aconitifolius, the aconite-leaved buttercup, or bachelor's buttons, is another good candidate for damp places. This non-invasive specimen, growing to around 30cm, produces attractive, white flowers on branching stems. The double form, Fair Maids Of France (or Kent), is the most popular. I don't normally recommend doubles because they are sterile and useless to the bees. But this one - with white pompoms set against black stems - does look quite fetching.

Lesser spearwort, Ranunculus flammula, is a good candidate for much wetter or boggy spots. A tall marginal, it produces a mass of tiny buttercup flowers. Its larger relative, greater spearwort, Ranunculus lingua, soars to two metres and produces much larger flowers. Both spread readily.

There's a buttercup for dry as well as soggy spots. Ranunculus bulbosus looks like the meadow buttercup and prefers more alkaline conditions. A bulbous variety worth looking out for is FM Burton, with yellow-eyed flowers and intensely subtle cream petals. This clump-forming perennial is low-growing, 15-30cm and, unlike some buttercups, does not spread. Seed should be available from The Scottish Rock Garden Club at Gardening Scotland.

Ranunculus gramineus is just right for a place in the sun in dry, gritty soil. It produces tight clumps of grass-like leaves. Reaching only 15cm tall, its large, lemon yellow flowers have delicate, slightly ruffled petals. This little charmer isn't grown enough.

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