The subject today is an exploration of the flower described as a colourful weed, a term which breaks my heart as it is my absolutely, most definitely and assuredly, favourite flower, the poppy. It may be not be the season for this little beauty, nor a farmers’ favourite, but today I glorify the tender bloom, which has been deemed by some as “too colourful to be believed”. The family Papaveraceae, which includes about 200 species found mostly in northern temperate regions, contains my favourite, the common field poppy, Papaver rhoeas. It is native to Britain, although remains celebrated as the poppy of Flanders. Poppies have been powerful symbols of blood and resurrection since ancient times. To the Romans they were sacred to Ceres, goddess of the crops. In our own century they symbolise the carnage of two world wars. Following the 1916 Battle of the Somme, fought over the chalk farmland of northern France, countless poppies and other annual wild flowers grew up from buried seed and flowered on the former battlefield.
Their swift vivid colonisation of bleak, bare ground bringing loveliness into a place of killing and barren sorrow.
John McRae, a British poet, World War I wrote:
“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
They are widespread in the British Isles, but less common in northern Scotland and western Ireland. Found throughout Europe, except Iceland and Turkey. Flowers appear between April and September and although poppies do not produce nectar, bumble bees still love their pollen. The single flowers are borne on erect branched, leafy stems up to 60cm tall. Stems that contain a distinctive milky sap packed full of poisonous alkaloids, nitrogenous plant chemicals known to make animals ill after consumption and for making the opium poppy famously known as a narcotic. The leaves are divided deeply into lobed sections, with the stems bearing short outspreading hairs. The buds hold the precious flower and are protected by two hairy green sepals. These quickly fall away as the petals unfold to reveal a flash of red grandeur. The flower, which is up to 6cm in size, is beautifully crumpled and tissue-like to begin, then as each petal stretches toward the sunlight, it becomes smooth and silky as if the gentle breeze irons out the imperfections. Two larger petals form the outer perianth and overlap the two inner petals, meeting at the centre where there are dark blotches and rings of black-anthered stamens surrounding the pistil. This is crowned with 8 to 12 dark ridges with are the stigmas and will later form the seed-head, a cup-shaped capsule, which spills its many small dry seeds from holes hiding under the top, like a shaken pepper pot.
Poppies ideally grow on disturbed wastelands. The more disturbed the better! They love cultivated fields and are especially associated with corn, roadsides and coastal shingle. I have even seen them in a car park, pushing up through the gravel. It is due to the ability of these seeds to lie dormant for several years and then germinate when conditions are favourable, that the plants appear so prolifically on arable land. Wherever soil is turned you’re likely to find these beautiful weeds.
After World War II, poppies gradually declined in the face of modern weedkillers, improved screening of seeds of food-crops, and better farming methods. Recently, reduced use of herbicides has brought joy to many fields as poppies are becoming common again and the scarlet blooms are reappearing all across the country. Where poppies are still abundant, whilst being a pain for the farmer, it spells beauty for the onlooker.
A remarkable flower, whose seed can be more than one hundred years old and still germinate. As quickly as each flower appears, it bursts into an exuberant life, which although short-lived, is one of beauty and boldness. Without shame, the delicate stem shows off its crumpled, papery petals in a show worthy of a head of state.
Carol Klein describes them as a bunch of brilliant beauties that burst upon the scene. She says they are the archetypal shooting stars, bringing excitement to its zenith for a short time, only to disappear at a moment’s notice. But that is their raison d’être. Suddenly without warning the poppy rapidly thrusts up its fat buds wreathed in hairy cases until, one morning, the first case splits and the red, crumpled, papery petals tumble out, unwilling to wait a moment longer, insistent that their time has come. Within hours the bud cases have been abandoned, thrown to the ground or occasionally still hanging on to one petal, before it too, swells to take its place, its puckered surface extending almost visibly, pulled to a smooth, satiny shine.
I am completely in love with these delicate, scarlet ladies. The curve of their stem, the nod of their heads, the fur of the bud. Most of all I love the crumpled petals, the vulnerability of each flower and their tantalizing appeal. I am obsessed, hooked on the narcotics of this plant. I need my fix, quick and sharp but the beauty, the splendour, that remains etched on my mind.
“In a gentle way you can shake the world”