or Marsh Marigold, Kingcup
While so many of our spring flowers are miniscule, the Marsh Marigold is a delight to discover in an open area by a sluggish stream. The plant itself is brilliant and showy with its large waxy leaves. Many a bowl of reassuring freshness has adorned spring tables through freezing nights and late snows.
It’s so scrumptious looking that you might be tempted to take a bite…but don’t! This entire plant is poisonous. It is toxic to the heart and can cause inflammation of the digestive organs. Handling the leaves can cause the skin to blister. The poison is volatile however and dried or cooked it is rendered harmless.
The spring blossoms of the marsh marigold have long been appreciated for their early colour. Like earthbound sunshine, patches of brilliant yellow set among shining green rise from brown and crumpled grasses in boggy roadside ditches and fens in early to mid June, as if beckoning returning waterfowl to potential, if not ideal nesting sites.
A polymorphic species, it occurs throughout the northern hemisphere in varied forms and goes by many names, most of which celebrate its welcome as a beautiful harbinger of spring. ‘Marigold’, used now over much of the modern english-speaking world, originated with Anglo-saxon celebrants of Easter, who gave the name to honour the Christian St. Mary.
By the end of July the waxy blossoms have done their work and the stellate seed clusters adorn the softened, but still handsome mound of leaves.
Depending on the source, the genus name ‘Caltha’ may refer to the colour or to the cup shape of the opening blossoms. Its species name, ‘palustris’, meaning ‘of the marsh’, clearly describes its habitat.
Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004
“The generic name Actaea is derived from the Greek aktiai, meaning elder, to which the leaves bear resemblance; rubra alluding to the red berries…” (source)
Most of the sources I’ve found say that the berries can also be white, although Ontario Wildflowers lists the white baneberry as a separate species (A. pachypoda). There are some good photos on that site as well, although their description of the berries of the red baneberry as ‘china white’ is a little confusing.
All parts of this member of the buttercup family are poisonous although several sources claim that native people did use it medicinally. “The name Baneberry refers to the plant’s toxicity, being derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘murderous’ – bana.” (source)
It is apparently quite unpalatable, and there have been no reported deaths from it in North America. The European species has been linked to the deaths of children. (source) Some birds and small animals are able to digest it.