Illustrations of Indian Botany, Vol. 1/Ranunculaceae





The species of this Order are nearly all extra-tropical. In India, a few only have as yet been found on the plains, but there are a considerable number natives of the higher hills.

The members of this family are for the most part readily distinguished by their habit, and by the analogy of their organization. The calyx; consists of several distinct, deciduous sepals, often coloured, or petaloid, and in the absence of petals performing the functions of both organs; in number, varying from 3 to 15, the estivation, generally, imbricating, but sometimes valvular, or with the edges folded in, as in Clematis. Corolla; sometimes wanting, as in most of the species of Clematis and Thalictrum, or composed of from 5 to 15 distinct petals. Stamens; usually numerous, anthers adnate, opening outwardly, inserted with the petals below the pistils. Pistils; usually united in form of a head in the centre of the flower; ovaries, each, one celled, with a single ovule, (aechnia) or many seeded and capsular, as in Aconite and some others; style always lateral, sometimes very long and plumose. Seeds albuminous, when solitary, either erect, or pendulous from the apex of the cell. Embryo minute, enclosed in a horny albumen. Plants, usually, herbaceous, with exsti-pulate leaves, sheathing at the base, generally, much divided; more rarely, scandent shrubs : the hairs, when present, simple.

Though generally an easily recognised order, the Ranunculaceae have strong affinities with some other orders, which however, differ widely among themselves. I do not think it necessary to indicate here their more remote and less striking affinities, but will briefly mention a few of their nearest allies.

With Dilleniaceae and Magnoliaceae, they associate in the position, number and structure of their parts of fructification ; but from the former, they are separated by the want of an aril to the seed, their deciduous calyx, and generally, by their very different habit. This last distinction is however weakened, through the twining habit of Tetracera and Delema associating them with the fruticose and scandent genera Clematis and Naravelia, while the herbaceous habit and sheathing leaves of Acrotrema, associate it with the more common herbaceous forms. From Magnoliaceas they are readily distinguished by the absence of stipules, difference of sensible qualities, and habit. With Rosaceae, though differing toto coelo in their sensible qualities, the Ranunculaceae have many structural affinities ; their numerous carpels, the number of their floral divisions, indefinite stamens, and the analogous habit observed in many species of both orders, all indicate this relationship; but, they are at once distinguished by the petals and stamens in Rosaceae, being inserted on the calyx, or perigynous, while in Ranunculaceae, they are both inserted under the ovaries, or, hypogynous.

Many other analogies might be indicated, but enough has been said to show the absolute necessity of attending to every point of structure in determining the order of any plant under examination, for, the order once ascertained, it is in general a comparatively easy task to make out the genus: one, and not the least of the advantages which the natural method possesses over the artificial, or sexual, system; as in it, a glance often serves to ascertain the class and order of a plant, but leaves the difficulty of determining the genus little of all diminished, while in all cases of departure from the regular form, such as the addition or suppression of a stamen or pistil, not a very rare occurrence, the Botanist unacquainted with the laws which give rise to, and regulate these metamorphoses, has no guide to direct him, where else in the system, to look for the plant under investigation. With the view therefore of facilitating the determination of orders, I shall usually append a summary of the essential characters of each; promising, however that these summaries must be received with considerable latitude, as it is often impossible to compress within a few words even the leading characters only : but they may serve as helps, by directing attention to those points of structure which are considered essential to the order.

Essential Character. Flowers polypetalous, polyandrous, ovaries wholly superior: leaves without stipules : seeds without an aril, with copious fleshy albumen. A few have definite stamens, and Clematis, Thalictrum, and some others, are without petals; but agree in all other respects with the characters indicated.

Geographical Distribution. As already stated, this considering its great extent, in a remarkable degree an extra-tropical order. A few only are found in India within the 25° of North Latitude, and these, with the exception of 8 or 9 species, are confined to the temperate climate of the higher hills, thus affording a striking instance of analogous organization and habit, pervading nearly the whole of an extensive family of plants, and an instructive example of the effect of these in determining the geographical distribution of its species, showing in another and very favourable point of view, the advantage we derive from studying plants according to this method, since, by enabling us to generalize our isolated observations on the structure, habits, and peculiarities of individual plants, it suggests their extension to whole families, and teaches us how we may by studying carefully the peculiarities of a single species, learn by analogy those of a whole order, a sort of alebriacal method, if I may so express myself, of studying vegetable physiology, which has within the last few years led to many most important discoveries in that science, To show that this is no hypothetical statement it is only necessary to adduce the fact, that the generally received division of the vegetable kingdom into three great classes, Acotyledons, Monocotyledons, and Dicotyledons, has become so simplified in its application to practice, that it is no longer necessary in determining to what class plant belongs to undertake the often difficult and delicate operation of dissecting the seed, since its structure is generally indicated by such palpable differences in the formation of the stem and leaves as render the most cursory inspection of those parts sufficient to determine the class to which the plant belongs. It would certainly be going too far out of my way to enter upon the examination of these distinctions here, suffice therefore to state, that such is the case, and that a reference to any of the recently published Introductions to Botany, or to the concluding pages of the preface of my Prodromus,*[1] will furnish an exposition of, the observations on which the principles are based. But to return from this digression. Twelve out of fifteen species known to me as indigenous in this peninsula, are only found on the higher hills, the remaining three, which are all twining shrubs, are met with on both hills and plains, but more frequently on the former than the latter. One of them, Climatis Gourrana, which I frequently met with in Mysore, appears admirably suited, from the profusion of its fine clusters of flowers, for the formation of arbours in the manner some of its congenus are employed in Europe. Of the herbaceous forms, I formerly remarked (Madras Journal No. 11) that when found within the tropics they almost invariably occupy the highest hills, where reduction of temperature, consequent on great elevation, compensates for low latitude; that the shrubby forms partake more of the tropical character, since they are found, sparingly it is true, in most tropical countries. I thence inferred, and have as yet seen no reason to alter my opinion, that wherever we meet with the former within the tropics, we may feel well assured, we have attained an elevation sufficient to place us beyond the influence of what has been called the 'fever zone' or range of jungle fever, so commonly met with in the belts of jungle, which embrace the more elevated slopes of all our high hills; and that their absence on the Shevaroys, were we otherwise unacquainted with the fact, might be adduced as an evidence, that they had not attained that degree of elevation, and ought therefore to have been carefully examined, before their perfect salubrity and suitableness for a sanatarium was proclaimed.

Properties and Uses. In Europe many species of this order are deservedly held in high esteem as affording some of the finest ornaments of the flower garden, among which may be mentioned, the Ranunculus Asiaticus and Aconitum Napellus; the former, supposed to be of Persian origin, and probably of easy introduction, from its native country, into India. Should this be attempted, I may here mention, that it requires to bring to perfection a deep rich moderately humid soil—As an arbour either the Clematis Gouriana, or the one here figured might be used. The latter would certainly form an exceedingly rich and handsome one, from the snow-white interior surfaces of its numerous large flowers contrasting finely with its dark green foliage, but it also will require for its successful culture, a very rich and deep vegetable soil, with abundance of water. The former may perhaps, prove of easier culture while its more numerous, clustered, flowers might compensate for their smaller size.

Remarkable as the family likeness existing among these plants, as traced in their geographical distribution may appear, it is even more strongly indicated in their properties. Of these, so far as the species of lower India are concerned, nothing seems known: none of them are represented by Rheede, in his Hortus Malabaricus, nor is there any of them mentioned by Ainslie in his Materia Medica of Hindoostan ; while Roxburgh confines his notice, of the few he knew, to their botanical description. To the Natives of this part of the country, they seem utterly unknown, as I have not been able to trace even a name, appertaining to any one species, among them.

It would however be injudicious to infer from this general silence regarding the Indian representatives of this curious tribe of plants, that they are inert, while nearly all the other members of the family are so remarkable for the active properties with which they are endowed. 'Acridity, Causticity, and Poison' are emphatically said to be 'the general characters of this suspicious order.' The acrid property is, however, for the most part confined to the recent plant, the principle on which it depends being so volatile that simple drying, infusion in water, or boiling, dissipates it, though in the recent state, it is so active that many species excite, when applied to the skin, violent inflammation, followed by blisters: a purpose for which they were much employed, previous to the general introduction of Flies, since which they have been nearly expelled from medical practice as epispastics, owing to the virulence of their operation, and consequent liability to induce obstinate ulcers. When taken internally in sufficient doses, several species of Clematis produce all the effects of poisoning, but have notwithstanding been employed in several diseases, and are said to afford valuable remedies, a statement, which may be doubted as nearly the whole tribe, with a few exceptions, has fallen into disuse as medicinal agents; Hellebore being almost the only one of the evacuants retained, and that, from the uncertainty of its operation, is seldom used. The roots however, of Hydrastis canadensis, and Coptis tri-foliata (golden thread) are used in North America as tonics, and Dr. Wallich informs us, that Coptis teeta, Wall, is similarly employed in Assam. The genus Aconitum appears to be that in which the poisonous properties are most prominently developed, the roots of Aconitum ferox, Wall, or Bish or Bikh of the Nepalese, ranking among the most virulent of vegetable poisons, while those of A. Napellus (the common monkshood of English gardens) are so active, as to have caused numerous accidents to Man, and are employed by the Swiss, mixed with food, to poison the Wolves which so generally infest their country. Might not the Nepaul one, which retains in drying its active properties, be similarly employed in this country for the destruction of Tigers, &c*[2] The Goorkahs endeavoured to protect their country against foreign invasion by poisoning the wells with it, and at one time the Konds were supposed to have had recourse to similar means to protect their country against the British troops. The plant used by the latter for this purpose, is still unknown, though it appears, from the statement of a Medical Officer employed in the first campaign, that the attempt was at first attended with partial success, in as much as several men were suddenly taken ill, who had partaken of the water of a well adjoining their camp, in which, on being dragged, a quantity of an unknown, and supposed poisonous root, considerably decayed, was found. The poisonous plant so employed in that part of the country is still unknown, but I dare say might on inquiry be ascertained.

While thus abounding with acrid and poisonous plants, the order includes a few of a different complexion. Several of its species are regarded as simply astringent: the seeds of Nigella, are pungent like pepper, and are employed in some parts of Europe as such, under the name of Allspice; (not the true English Allspice, which is derived from a very different source) and all the species of Coptis, are simply bitter and tonic. The Mishme teeta of Assam, Coptis teeta Wall, is in high repute among the Assamese, the taste of which is described by Wallich "as intensely and purely bitter, very lasting, and with only a very slight aroma." This plant has been introduced into the Calcutta botanic garden, and at the time the account was written, promised to survive the great change of climate.

To devote more space to an exposition of the properties of extra-indian species of an order so little known in Southern India, would, it appears to me, be out of place in a work, principally devoted to the botany of these regions, I shall therefore conclude my remarks regarding it, with a few observations on some of the genera and species, of this portion of India.

Observations. The number of genera yet found in the Southern provinces of India and Ceylon, amount, so far as I know, to only seven; and of these I feel inclined to consider Adonis a doubtful native. The number of species with which I am acquainted now extends, for both countries, to 16, two new ones having been added to Clematis, and one to Ranunculus, since the publication of my Prodromus. The former are readily distinguished from the previously described, Peninsular, species, by their flowers being fewer and larger sized than those of any of the preceding ones, while in both, the leaves are ternate and simple, in place of pinnate as in them. In addition to these I possess specimens of a third form, but not in flower, closely allied, to C. Wightiana, but so far as my imperfect specimens, of both species, enable me to judge, distinct. In the genus Ranunculus, the examination of Ceylon specimens of what appears to be the true R. pinnntus of Poir, has, since the publication of our Prodromus, led both Dr. Arnott and myself to the conclusion, that our R. Wallichianus can scarcely be kept distinct from that species. In addition to R. pinnatus, Ceylon possesses one so closely allied to R. reniformis, that it is only distinguishable by the member of its petals, that in the former being usually 5, while in the latter it is from 10 to 15, unless in those instances where they appear fewer from the union, among themselves, of petals; several instances of which I have observed. The petals of the Ceylon plant, are however much larger than those of the continental one, hence we might almost infer the smaller number, which is the only good distinguishing mark between them, originates in the one case, from the constant union of adjoining pairs of petals similar to what I have observed to occur partially in the other, a view, which, is supported by the fact, that the continental plant has sometimes, though rarely, the number of its petals augmented from 10 to 15, or in the proportion of three to each sepal; perhaps, the normal form, thus showing in the frequent diminution of the number of its petals to 10, a similar tendency to union. Should further acquaintance with these plants show a similar tendency to multiplication of petals, in the Ceylon one, and a still further disposition in ours to reduction, these two must ultimately be united, though for the present, it is my intention to keep them distinct.


1. C. Munroiana (R.W.) Climbing: glabrous, except the calyx: leaves ternate, long petioled; leaflets broadly ovate, acuminated, rounded, or slightly cordate at the base, 5 to 7 nerved, quite entire: peduncles shorter than the leaves, 3, rarely 1, flowered, from the axils of simple, ovate, or ovate-lanciolate, floral leaves, and bearing two lanciolate bracts below the middle: sepals lanciolate, expanding, or revolute ; stamens equalling the sepals: styles long plumose.

Moist woods, Neelgherries, and Pulney mountains, flowering in September.

I have much pleasure in dedicating this very fine species to Lieutenant Munro, H. M. 39th Foot, the talented Secretary to the Mysore Horticultural Society, an enthusiastic and promising botanist, who found it on the Neelgherries about the same time that I did on the Pulney mountains.—Plate No. 1.

An extensively climbing shrub, every where glabrous, except the exterior surfaces of the sepals, which are clothed with brownish hairs. Leaves long petioled, 3 foliolate, pedicels of the leaflets long, and cirriform; leaflets, broadly ovate, oblong, rounded, or sub-cordate at the base, acute, or somewhat acuminated at the point, usually 7, rarely 5, nerved at the base, quite entire; floral leaves, in every respect like the leaflets, except, that they are smaller and short petioled. Peduncles solitary, from the axils of, and longer than these foliacious bracts, 3 flowered, and furnished below the middle with two opposite, lanciolate bracts. Flowers large, white; flower buds, ovate, oblong. Sepals 4, lanciolate, spreading or revolute, about an inch long, white within, clothed, externally, with rusty brown shag. Stamens numerous in several series, the exterior filaments compressed, equalling the sepals; anthers small, pointed. Pistils numerous, ovary hairy; styles long, feathery; stigma pointed. Fruit not seen.

2. C. affinis (R. W.) Climbing : glabrous, except the sepals: leaves 3 foliolate, leaflets acutely toothed, ovate, serrated, acuminated, 7 nerved; peduncles one flowered, from the axils of simple foliaceous bracts: flowers drooping, sepals ovate, acuminated, twice the length of the stamens.

Shevagerry mountains in woods, flowering in August.

This species is I fear too nearly allied to the former, from which I have been induced to separate it, on account of its serrated leaves, constantly one flowered peduncles, its much smaller flowers, (about half the size) and lastly, on account of the great disproportion between the relative length of its stamens and pistils, and sepals.

The third form alluded to above as so nearly allied to C. Wightiana differs in the following respects. In C. Wightiana the leaves are pinnate, consisting of one pair of leaflets, and an odd one, in this there are two pairs; in that, each leaflet is deeply 3 parted, or divided into three distinct, short pedicelled, secondary leaflets; in this, they are all entire, or but slightly 3 lobed: but in both, they are coarsely serrated, cordate at the base, and very villous on both sides : the flowers I have not seen, and suspect the differences noted depend on variations in the form of the leaves on different parts of the same plant, a point, which I hope some of the residents on the Neelgherries, where I believe it grows, will enable me to clear up.


3. T. glyphocarpum (W. and A.) This species originally from the Neelgherries, is now ascertained to be a native of the higher parts of Ceylon, where it has been found by both Colonel Walker and myself.


4. R. reniformis (Wall.) Erect, hairy: radical leaves roundish ovate, reniform, or reniform cordate at the base, coarsely serrated; lowest scape leaf oblong, toothed, narrowed at the base into a petiol; upper ones nearly linear: petals numerous, 10—13, twice as long as the patulous calyx: heads of fruit globose: achenia oblong, tumid, minutely dotted: style nearly straight.

Neelgherries and Pulney mountains, flourishing in September and October.

I have modified, a little, the character of this species to bring in the form here figured.—Plate No. 2.

5. R. hastatus (Walker's MSS.) Erect, glabrous, except the petiols of the radical leaves: radical leaves, reniform cordate, or deeply reniform hastate at the base, lobes broad, roundish, coarsely serrated; scape leaves, lanciolate, toothed, attenuated at the base into a broad petiol: petals 5, roundish obovate: heads of fruit globose, achenia tumid, minutely dotted; style straight, or slightly hooked at the apex.

Ceylon, plains of Nuera Ellia in marshy and low pastures.

I am informed by Colonel Walker that he has also found it on Horton plains, at a considerably greater elevation, where the plants become smaller, the lobes of the leaves less developed, and altogether more like E. reniformis.

6. R. pinnatus (Poir). The character given of R. Wallichianus, is nearly applicable to this species, with the exception of the leaves being described as merely hairy, in place of hispidly villous; a character apparently of little value in this species, as the clothing varies in degree on both Ceylon and Continental specimens. It is readily distinguished however from the nearly allied A subpinnatis by its murciated, not smooth, achenia.



1. Clematis Munroiana, branch, with leaves and flowers, natural size.—2. Receptacle, with ovaries, styles and stamens showing the different series of the latter magnified.—3. Back and front view of filament and anther magnified.—4. Receptacle cut vertically,—5. Ovary, with its attached feathery style, much magnified.

2d. — Ranunculaceae.

1. Ranunculus reniformis, natural size.—2. Receptacle, showing stamens and ovaries, the .sepals and petals removed.—3. A detached petal showing the nectarial scale at the base.—4. Back and front view of the anthers.—5. Ovary detached.—6. Carpel cut vertically. All more or less magnified.

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  1. * Prodromus Florae Penins. Ind. Oriental.
  2. * Dr. Wallich (Plant Asta Rar) states, on the authority of Henry Colebrooke, Esq. that the Bikh is employed in the northern part of Hindoostan for destroying Tigers, but in a way different from that here recommended. "Arrows poisoned with that drug are shot from bows fixed near the tracks leading to their watering places, and it generally appears that the animal is found dead at the latter." The following extract from Mr. Royle's Illustrations, &c. embraces in a condensed form nearly all the information we possess respecting its properties and uses. In all the native works, the Bikh is represented as being a deadly poison, even in the smallest doses. The Hindoo works quoted by Dr. Hunter, describe it as being at first sweetish (hence the affix meetha, sweet), and then followed by a roughness on the tongue, or as it is expressed in one work, "seizing the throat." Dr. Buchanan has informed us, that it is equally fatal when taken into the stomach, and when applied to wounds : hence used for poisoning arrows and killing wild animals. The futility of the Gorkhas attempting to poison the springs of water was shown in the last campaign, and Dr. Govan has proved the improbability of deleterious exhalations from this plant being the cause of the unpleasant sensations experienced at great elevations, inasmuch as it is only found much below where these are experienced. But as it is a root of such virulent powers, it has no doubt been frequently employed as a poison, and its sale was therefore prohibited by the native powers in India. Notwithstanding this, the Hindoo physicians, noted for the employment of powerful drugs such as arsenic, nux vomica, and croton, do not hesitate to employ this also in medicine. In the Taleef-Shereef it is directed never to be given alone ; but mixed with several other drugs, it is recommended in a variety of diseases, as cholera, intermittent fever, rheumatism, tooth-ache, and bites of snakes. It is also used as an external application in rheumatism in the north-western provinces. Mr. Pereira's experiments have shown that this root, either in the form of powder, watery extract, or spirituous extract, is a most virulent poison: but of these forms the last is by far the most powerful. "The effects were tried by introducing this extract into the jugular vein, by placing it in the cavity of the peritoneum, by applying it to the cellular tissue of the back, and by introducing it into the stomach. In all these cases, except the last, the effects were very similar ; namely, difficulty of breathing, weakuess, and subsequently paralysis, which generally commenced in the posterior extremities, vertigoes, convulsions, dilatation of the pupil, and death, apparently from asphyxia." (v. Wall. Pl. Asiat. Rar. loc. cit.)