Sandy’s Garden ... Ubi Es, Ranunculus?

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Ranunculus, Ranunculus, / Your absence is conspicuous; / Small wonder I am querulous; / So, “Ubi es, Ranunculus?” (‘Where are you, Ranunculus?’)

I think that Talbot Rothwell might be proud of such doggerel, he who is always credited with having written these immortal words for the script of Carry On Cleo: “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.” Spoken by Kenneth Williams, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me,” was voted the funniest one-line joke in film history in 2007 and was actually first written by Frank Muir and Denis Norden for their radio series Take It From Here and was re-used by Talbot Rothwell with their permission. (Not many people know that.) Yet the Ranunculus of which I write is not a character in Carry On Cleo; nor is it the name of one of the many Roman gods, nor yet the name of a proud slave who changed the course of Roman history by winning emancipation for himself and all his subjugated brethren. No, the Ranunculus of which I write is a member of a genus of about 600 species of plants called the Ranunculaceae, a family of flowering plants commonly known known as the buttercup family whose members also include the buttercups … surprise, surprise … spearworts and water crowfoots. And I planted several some weeks ago.

When I reveal the wording of the planting instructions on the packaging of a gift from friends you will realise, gentle reader, that I was not planting common buttercups. “Before planting, soak the tubers in water for about two hours. Empty about two-thirds of the compost into the pot and moisten. Plant the claw-like roots pointing downwards and cover with the remaining compost. Place in a sunny, frost-free position.” No, the Ranunculus of which I write is, to quote from the website of the National Gardening Association of the United States, plants of which, “brilliantly coloured flowers are their chief attraction, and they are indeed special. They most often come in multiple layers of delicate, crepe paper-thin petals, looking like an origami masterwork. They also make long-lasting cut flowers.”

I can expect the Ranunculus … or ranunculus for, while the plant’s botanical name is conventionally written in italics with an initial capital letter, its common name is written in Roman (or normal) script with no initial capital and ranunculus’ usual common name is the same as its botanical name … to produce grass-green leaves in a mound which is something of the order of 20-30 cm across - say, 8-12 inches in old money. The stems which carry the flowers will follow, reaching perhaps 30-45 cm … 12-18 inches … in height and carrying several 7.5-12.5 cm (3-5 inch) blooms in one of warm colours – pink, red, orange or yellow. The packaging of my gift shows a pink flower; but I am still waiting to see the first one.

Although the label does not say so, my tubers are almost certainly of the species Ranunculus asiaticus otherwise known, I am assured, as the ‘Persian buttercup.’ This variant is native to the eastern Mediterranean region in south western Asia, south eastern Europe … particularly the islands of Crete, Karpathos and Rhodes … and north eastern Africa. This is by far the most common species sold in the United Kingdom. A herbaceous perennial in its native habitats, it is most unlikely to survive a winter outdoors in our islands and is usually grown in pots which must be overwintered in a frost-free greenhouse to be brought out into the garden when milder weather and sunshine will encourage it to produce its ‘voluptuous flowers’, as Monty Don describes them. Ranunculus, Ranunculus, / Your flowers should be voluptuous; / So why are you still flowerless? / Oh, ubi es, Ranunculus?