Sagebrush Buttercup Plant Profile

Avoid Planting this Invasive and Toxic Species in Your Garden

Bright yellow five petalled flowers in early spring sere landscape.
The sagebrush buttercup appears very early in spring, blooming before anything else in the landscape.

 Greg Byron / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The sagebrush buttercup is a member of the ranunculus family, like other buttercups. Ranunculus is derived from the Latin word for frog and refers to these plants' love of wet habitats.

The sagebrush buttercup is native to the northwestern United States, including the northwestern Great Plains, and western Canada. In its native areas, it blooms very early in spring, sometimes as early as February. It is considered a somewhat problematic native species in some areas because the flowers have been shown to be toxic to livestock. However, once the flower is dried, the toxins are destabilized and it is less harmful.

Sagebrush buttercup has medicinal benefits, including healing bruises and lessening the pain and inflammation of arthritis. There is a fairly rich folkloric history detailing the use of the plant by various indigenous Americans for a wide variety of ailments. Like many other medicinal plants, the constituents that render it toxic in one form (in this case fresh) are the basis of its curative properties in another form (dried or cooked).

The plant is small, usually about three to four inches high, but is noticeable because of its vibrantly colored flowers, one of the first to bloom in spring.

The plant emerges early and quickly forms a round flower bud that has a slight purple tinge. The five-petaled flowers are a sunny bright yellow, with bright yellow stamens. The leaves are a somewhat unusual shape, being oval with three lobes or notches on one side, with a slight reddish tinge at the edges. The surface of the petals has a somewhat waxy, shiny quality that reflects light, making them quite a sight in the early spring sunshine.

The plant reproduces via dense fruit clusters full of seeds. These seeds have a hairy surface and will stick to clothing, so the plants are spread via human movement as well as normal wind and weather conditions.

The sagebrush buttercup grows in dry soils and is very tolerant of both drought and cold. It lives in a wide range of habitats including the grasslands of British Columbia, ponderosa pine and douglas fir tree forests, and sagebrush flats in the northwestern United States.

This wildflower is ubiquitous in its native regions, but it's not a plant one would commonly see cultivated. The combination of its invasive qualities, its toxicity, and its lack of commercial availability mean it is best appreciated in its wild habitats.

Scientific Name Ranunculus glaberrimus
Common Name Sagebrush buttercup, crowfoots
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size 3 to 4 inches
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Good drainage, tolerant of most soils, likes moisture
Soil pH 6.0 to 7.5
Bloom Time Early spring
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones USDA 2 to 6
Native Areas Northwestern US, western Canada
Toxicity Toxic if eaten fresh, toxic to grazing livestock
Bright yellow five petalled flower with bee pollinating.
Emerging early in spring, the sagebrush buttercup is an important food source for bees.  Terry Gray / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Growing Conditions for Sagebrush Buttercup

The sagebrush buttercup is a hardy perennial wildflower that grows best in areas with high amounts of rainfall and plenty of sun. It has a very low tolerance for salt in soil or salt air.

The flowers wake up very early, flower by March, form seed pods in May and June, and generally disappear from sight by July. Their early flowering makes them an important food source for bees and other pollinators and insects.

These plants are known to attract the beautiful Orchard Mason Bee, which is blue in color and considered a significant pollinator of fruit trees, especially apple trees. This bee is one of the first native bees to emerge in spring, so the early flowering sagebrush buttercup is an ideal food source.

Sagebrush Buttercup is Not Suited to Garden Landscapes

Finding sagebrush buttercup seeds or plants to cultivate may prove difficult, as it is not commercially available. This is likely partly because this perennial is so particular to its locations, but also because the plant is considered somewhat invasive. For this reason, it's not recommended to plant Sagebrush buttercup, but to instead enjoy it in its native areas, including many public lands and national parks.

Sagebrush Buttercup Toxicity

The other reason to avoid cultivating this wild plant is its toxicity. Like all buttercups, sagebrush buttercup contains a toxin in its raw state that is a skin irritant and also a mild poison if ingested.

Grazing animals will tend to eat it because it appears so early in spring, so the sagebrush buttercup is undesirable to have in places where there is grazing livestock.