The common BUTTERCUP is a member of the Ranunculus family, known as R. acris for the acrid taste of its stem which is poisonous to humans, cows, and horses. The small, bright yellow flowers, at most about an inch wide, are particularly glossy and bloom on tall, rangy stems up to two feet high in the summer from June to August.
Also known as celandine, crowfoot, butterflower, and kingcup (Ward 71), the buttercup has a long literary history, stretching back to Shakespeare (crowfoot is one of the flowers in Ophelia’s garland) and Wordsworth, who wrote a poem “To the Small Celadine” (Ward 72). In the Victorian language of flowers, buttercups were assigned the meaning of “childishness” (Greenaway 10), an identification emphasized by sentimental Victorian poets such as Eliza Cook and Coventry Patmore, author of “The Angel in the House,” and immortalized by the character of Buttercup in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1878 HHS Pinafore: “I am called Little Buttercup/Dear Little Buttercup. . . “ (Ward 75-6).
For Virginia Woolf, however, buttercups are mostly associated with their glossy yellow color and rural habitat. In May of 1897, she describes the day of “our great water party” when she and her elder half-brother George Duckworth and her sister Nessa rented a boat north of Reading, rowed it upstream on the Thames for a luncheon, and then drifted downstream back to Reading in time for tea: “we splashed leisurely down the river to Tilehurst -- picked buttercups on the way, & eating cherries” (PA 89). In a similarly relaxed, contemplative mood, in June of 1919, she sat at a window looking out on the field at Asham “gilt with buttercups” (D1 278). Buttercups also make their way into an essay of 1919, a review of a new book by Ella Wheeler Wilcox where their rural simplicity is contrasted with the rarity of orchids: “The buttercups and daisies of the fields looked to her like rare orchids and hothouse roses” (E3 100). A similar pairing is repeated in 1934, when Woolf refers to a floral gift from Baronness Okampo, “a generous woman who sheds orchids as easily as buttercups” (L5 350).
In August of 1928, Woolf appears to jokingly reject the standard charm of buttercups while revealing some actual knowledge about their morphology. Writing a letter to Vita, who was working on her horticultural poem The Land, Woolf sternly orders her to “deal seriously with facts. I don’t want any more accurate descriptions of buttercups and how they’re polished on one side and not the other. What I want is the habits of earthworms” (L3 198). Apparently she wants Vita to go deeper than the superficial wildflower. But in 1931, she returns to the contemplative and gilding resonances when she records walking through Firle Park with Leonard in the evening, as they “brushed the buttercups onto our shoes” (D4 27). In 1940, buttercups are paired with sorrel as signs of the arrival of summer (D5 291).
The closest Woolf gets to the archetypal resonances of childhood innocence usually associated with buttercups is the one appearance of the wildflower in her fiction, in Jacob’s Room where, aged about twenty, the young undergraduate lolls in the grass while his friend Durrant eats cherries: “The meadow was on a level with Jacob's eyes as he lay back; gilt with buttercups, but the grass did not run like the thin green water of the graveyard grass about to overflow the tombstones, but stood juicy and thick. Looking up, backwards, he saw the legs of children deep in the grass, and the legs of cows” (JR). Recalling the buttercups and cherries of her 1897 trip down the Thames, the passage literally grounds Jacob in a world where he is level with children, emphasizing his own childish state. The fact that the plant is poisonous and that the surrounding grass brings up images of graveyards and tombstones are subtle reminders that his stalk will not stand for long.