Three-lobed Crowfoot

This speciality of muddy tracks and ruts on The Lizard starts to show its delicate, tiny white flowers in February and March.
Photo: Amanda Scott


Scientific name: Ranunculus tripartitus

Other common names: Three-lobed Water-crowfoot

Conservation status: Vulnerable in Britain; included in UK Biodiversity Action Plan

The heaths, hedgerows and sweeping clifftops of The Lizard together provide a stunning backdrop for the spring flowers that are just beginning to emerge. But you can also find botanical treasures in some unexpected and not so immediately attractive places on the peninsula. The heaths are criss-crossed by muddy trackways, full of flooded ruts in the winter months but dry in the summer. These are the habitat for a group of rare, specialised plants that take advantage of the bare soil these tracks afford to avoid competition with more vigorous vegetation. Some appear in the early and mid-summer (such as Pigmy Rush and Yellow Centaury), but one, Three-lobed Crowfoot, opens its small leaves in the winter, floating on the surface of inundated trackways. Its tiny flowers, with their five white, yellow-tinged petals, follow in the early spring, held above the water.

There are a few Water-crowfoots, all members of the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). The different species are not always easy to tell apart (they can hybridise and show intra-species variability), but Three-lobed Crowfoot is the one most often found on The Lizard heathland trackways.

As well as looking for the small flowers (in spring) and delicate small leaves, you should see if you can spot fine, branching ‘filaments’ where it occurs in deeper water. These are, in fact, also leaves. Like some other Water-crowfoots, Three-lobed Crowfoot has the ability to produce two types of leaves: the laminar leaves are the ones you see floating on the surface, and the capillary leaves are the ‘filaments’. Most of the time, however, this species only produces the laminar leaves, but keep an eye out and you may be lucky.

The range of Three-lobed Crowfoot in Britain has reduced considerably over recent decades, and is now mostly found in Cornwall and western Pembrokeshire in Wales, with some sites in Devon and the south, including the New Forest. It is a plant that thrives on disturbed ground – such as that provided by low-level grazing and trampling by cattle – as this reduces competition from other plants. The Lizard tracks were once used by the serpentine industry, which therefore provided the disturbance the plant needs, but are now falling into disuse. This is why you might see vehicles of conservation organisations deliberately being driven up and down the tracks – Three-lobed Crowfoot and other rare plants of this habitat appreciate the mud-churning activity!

Did you know…?

…Destruction and drainage of heathlands, together with reduction in disturbance, are the main reasons for the greatly diminished range of this species in the UK. Its seed can remain dormant for many years, however, so it can recover if the right conditions are restored at known historic sites.

More information and references:

Bates, R. and Scolding, B., 2002. Wild Flowers of the Lizard. Cornwall County Council, Cornwall.

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Webster, S,D., 1988 (with minor updates by Rich, T.C.G., 2012). Plant Crib: Ranunculus subgenus Batrachum. BSBI, Durham.

Published: March 2014
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Amanda Scott