The Amazing Poppy Plant

Most commonly cultivated varieties of the ornamental poppy plant.


| May/June 2013



amazing poppy plants

Beauty, intrigue and variety describe flowers in the poppy family.

Photo By Gary Noel Ross

The word “poppy” denotes different things to different people. Not so long ago, the word was commonly associated with a small, circular flower lapel pin crafted of red and black paper and distributed by veterans on Memorial Day. There also are the tiny poppy seeds used in the culinary arts, the huge iconic “Red Poppy” paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, the magical sleep-inducing field of poppies penned in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the garden cultivars that add such exotic pizzazz in early spring, and even the illegal drug trade — raw opium is derived from the sap of the “opium poppy.”

All of the aforementioned refer to a large family of plants known botanically as Papaveraceae — literally “poppy family.” These plants have a worldwide distribution but favor subpolar to temperate latitudes with pronounced winters and poor soils in disturbed venues. All species are sun-loving and, with a few exceptions, are short-lived annuals that reproduce primarily through seeds. Flowers are exquisite: four to six oversized flaring petals with a delicate tissue-paper-thin and finely crinkled texture that’s reminiscent of silken fabric. Color is usually, but not always, brilliant red with a black base. Each flower produces an abundance of pollen that is considered pure gold by bees, an additional plus when bee populations seem to be in crisis and farmers are experiencing lower pollination of their commercial crops, including tree fruits and forage crops. Perhaps the agriculture community and vegetable gardeners alike should launch a new mantra: “Plant Poppies!”

Of the nearly 200 species of plants referred to as “poppy,” only a few have commercial or ornamental value. Here are the most commonly cultivated varieties.

Field Poppy, Corn Poppy, Flanders Poppy, Corn Rose, Red Weed (Papaver rhoeas). With its thin, silky red petals and black centers, this species could easily serve as the archetype for the entire family. Furthermore, the corn poppy is a hardy species that is widespread throughout England and Europe, where the plants are regarded as an agriculture pest. The alternate name, “Flanders poppy,” is based on a poem penned by John McCrae, a Canadian physician and lieutenant colonel during World War I. The poem, written in 1915, is a solemn tribute to the victims of war. The title, “In Flanders Fields,” refers to the first line of the poem: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow.” The poem was inspired by the massive bloom of poppies observed at the fresh burial sites of soldiers in Flanders Fields, the generic name for military cemeteries in Flanders, Belgium. For decades, paper or plastic representations of these flowers have been created and distributed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Memorial Day in the United States and on Remembrance Day in Commonwealth countries — the so-called “Buddy Poppies.” As such, the red corn poppy has become the ubiquitous metaphor for the blood of fallen soldiers.

• Shirley Poppy. Because of the rankness of the corn poppy, a more ornamental cultivar was developed. In 1880, in the parish of Shirley (Croydon District) in England, the Rev. William Wilks developed such a variety. Respectfully named the Shirley Poppy, the genetic variant is robust with compacted fernlike leaves and is a prolific bloomer. Although red is still the dominant color, long-term genetic manipulations have developed a mixture of white and pastels — primarily pink and salmon — often on the same plant. Often, too, petals are augmented with white rims, and may or may not have black bases. Some variants feature fringed petals and even multipetals. Flowers of the Shirley poppy are fragrant — unusual for poppies — so they lend themselves to indoor flower arrangements. It is this Shirley cultivar that is marketed commercially for widespread use in garden landscapes throughout the world.

• Iceland Poppy, Arctic Poppy (Papaver nudicaule). Native to Iceland, northern Europe and northern Canada, this is the most cold-tolerant and heat-sensitive of all commercial poppies; plants usually expire before spring is fully under way. The plants are short with sparse, dainty, feathery leaves — no doubt, adaptations to their cold native habitats. Pure species have four paper-thin petals that are either white or yellow with clear/yellow centers. However, cultivars exhibit multicolored pastels. The colors, much like those of sweet peas, and a mild fragrance make Iceland poppies great in flower arrangements.





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