Sunday, May 10, 2009


One of my earliest gardening memories is gathering poppy buds with my mother. She would carefully cut each stem with a pair of scissors, selecting those that were not quite open. The stems were then brought inside and the end of each stem scorched with a candle flame. I was always intrigued by the way the black hairs on the end of the stems were quickly consumed, while the stem ends were singed. My mother told me thr flowers would keep better in water if treated this way.
Perhaps that is why I have always had a soft sport for poppies. They have a bold simplicity of form, with their (usually) single bowl-shaped flowers, and often have subdued colour clarity.
The most popular poppies are undoubtedly the Iceland Poppies. They are derived from the wild short-lived perennial species, Papaver nudicaule, which occurs naturally in the high latitudes of Europe and Northern America. They are found in, naturally, in Iceland. In the wild they are only yellow and white, but over the 250 years they have been cultivated, a wide range of colours has been developed, especially into the deep orange and pink shades.
In the garden they tend to behave like biennials, although they can be kept a live for more than one flowering season. We usually plant them out in autumn for spring flowering. They do best in well-drained soil in full sun. They look fabulous in areas where the sun can shine through the translucent petals.
There are many varieties of Iceland Poppy available as seedlings, most very similar. I usually grow the older variety ‘Artists Glory’, which has a good range of different colours, with some two toned forms. If you are constrained for space, try the ‘Wonderland’ series, which has a similar range of colours but only grows to about half the size at about 20 cm. The flowers are correspondingly smaller.
There are, of course, many other poppies, some of which hold a special place in the hearts of the general populace, while others hold special places in the hearts of serious gardeners.
The red soldiers’ poppy has come to commemorate our fallen soldiers - a wonderfully evocative floral symbol of remembrance. It is the red corn poppy, which spread across Europe as our first ancestors moved across the continent with their cereal crops. The poppy came along for the ride as a cornfield weed.
Its significance as a remembrance symbol derives from the Canadian doctor John McCrae’s evocative poem In Flanders Field, where he draws on the way the blood red poppy bloomed on the killing fields of Flanders. This so moved one woman that she campaigned to have the poppy accepted as the official symbol of remembrance for the United States, from where it spread to Commonwealth countries.
The single red soldiers’ poppy can be bought for the garden, but its descendants, the Shirley poppies, are more common. These are the result of an observant English country vicar, the Rev William Wilks, who noticed just one flower with a white rim around the edge of the petals. He took seeds from this plant and grew them in his garden at Shirley, selecting for both colour and flower form until he had singles, doubles, and intermediate forms, in colours ranging from white and pale lilac to pink and red. Following generations have also been at work on this species (P. rhoeas) and have made the flowers much larger, until they now match the largest of the Iceland Poppies

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