Main image: Photo Adam Ross
I’ve always been ambivalent when it comes to ranunculus. I love them as a cut flower, but not so much in the garden: I don't think they merge well with other plants, and mass plantings of ranunculus are too parks and gardens for my taste. Consequently, I’ve always grown them in pots or in a small area specifically set aside for cutting.
But this year I tried a completely different kind – Ranunculus Butterfly - and it is fabulous. At first glance, you might not even recognise this as a ranunculus. Bred in Japan for the cut flower market, it has a looser structure than traditional varieties. This makes it perfect for the more informal and garden-centric approach in contemporary floral design and at the same time a far better plant for the border.
Butterfly has smaller blooms with fewer layers than traditional varieties - some are singles - but there are multiple stems and multiple flowers on each stem and a lovely waxy sheen on the petals that catches the light and makes them seem to shimmer. Each individual flower is very long lasting: it gets paler with age and the petals twist up which only adds to their charm. If you cut a stem when the first flower has opened; other buds will continue to open, and even more buds will appear. I’ve had stems lasting over three weeks, with an impressive succession of flowers. I kept them in a cool position, changed the water every few days, removed the flowers that went over, and recut the stem every five days or so.
Like all ranunculus, Butterflies are a cool weather flower. They enjoy lots of sun, but high temperatures will make them go dormant. They like mild winters and long cool springs … and that certainly describes what we’ve had in Victoria this year. We’re well into June and there is no sign of them stopping yet. I’ve cut about 10 very strong multi-branched stems from each tuber so far, and they are still pushing up more. And while the heads of the traditional ranunculus bent over soggily in the rain, the Butterflies just sparkled.
Each Butterfly is named after a figure in Greek mythology, such as ‘Hades’, hot red of course, and ‘Helios’, lemon yellow for the sun god. I was able to get tubers of only two kinds this year: ‘Ariadne’ and ‘Europe’. ‘Ariadne’ is a beauty; she has more petals than most and is something of a shape-shifter, moving from a creamy yellow bud to a peachy pink flower then fully opening to pale pink petals with a deeper pink eye. She can grow tall, with very long stems, well over 2’, but strong.
The more compact ‘Europe’ is a single with pale plummy pink petals and a darker purple eye.. (Readers with a pedantic streak like me will wonder why it is ‘Europe’ and not ‘Europa’, since the reference is surely to the mythological princess abducted by Zeus in the disguise of a bull.)
Then there was my surprise bonus. In the bag was a tiny broken off piece of tuber which I planted, and it produced a gorgeous pale lemon flower: ‘Helios’, I presume. I don’t grow a lot of yellow flowers, but this is such a cool and delicate shade, fading with age nearly to white, that it became my favourite of the three. It had a shorter stem than the others, but perhaps this was the result of it growing from such a tiny piece of tuber.
So, this is a wonderful plant, but here’s the catch. Because sales of tubers are aimed at the cut flower trade, it is difficult for the ordinary gardener to source them. Let’s hope they become more widely available, but, in the meantime, here are a few possible options.
USA: there are a few sources of Butterfly in the US, but I highly recommend going with Fleur Farm in Vermont. Fleur Farm offered several varieties last year and at the time of writing is still doing more testing and deciding, based on performance, which to offer this coming fall. They will also be stocking the Romance Ranunculus.
Canada: Now that Fleur Farm is no longer delivering to Canada, I am looking for a new source here. If anyone has a good Canadian source, I would love to know.
UK: Sarah Raven is your best bet here. She has stocked ‘Ariadne’ and ‘Theseus’ over the past few years.
Alternatively for UK readers, there is a similar hybrid, Ranunculus Rococo, bred in the UK and launched at Chelsea in 2019. The breeder claims these are hardy down to -15° and I see they are presently available from Hayloft Plants. The colours are rather brighter than the Butterflies. If anyone in the UK has tried these, I’d love to hear about them.