Few flowers are as widely recognised as the poppy and people with little knowledge of plants will generally be able to identify one. In part this is due to its tenacious presence both in rural lanes and fields and on wasteland and verges in towns. Mainly, though, it is the poppy’s status as an emblem of remembrance that has ensured it is deeply embedded in our psyches. It is an influential flower and it has a fascinating history. Here are ten facts you probably don’t know about poppies.
There are more than 70 species of Papaver, in a range of shapes and colours to suit a range of occasion and plant palette. Its versatility is one of its strengths and just one of the many reasons why it such a popular garden flower.
Papaver grows mainly in the northern hemisphere, including within the Arctic Circle, with one species found in southern Africa. They are part of the Papaveraceae family, which includes other genera commonly referred to as poppies, such as Meconopsis (the Himalyan poppy) and Eschscholzia (the Californian poppy).
Artist and gardener Sir Cedric Morris was a keen poppy hunter and after the Second World War, Morris scoured the Suffolk countryside for variations in the common field poppy Papaver rhoeas and eventually bred a range with a smoky-grey sheen to the petals.
As long ago as 2700 BCE the Minoans, a sophisticated civiliation based around Crete, are known to have cultivated poppies for their seed.
The genus is wide ranging and encompasses species whose flowers can be extremely different. The opium poppy is far less elegant and fragile than the field poppy and produces flowers that are burly and flamboyant.
Culinary poppy seeds are a source of minerals, calcium and iron and are derived mainly from the opium poppy P. somniferum.
P. orientale is amongst the most widely grown perennial and its typically blousey flowers have made it popular in exuberant planting design. Most cultivars were bred in Britain in the early 20th century by nurseryman Amos Perry.
P. orientale ‘Patty’s Plum’ was found growing on the compost heap of one Mrs Patricia Marrow in the 1980s. Its dusky plum-coloured flowers caused a sensation when the plant was first introduced.
In China, Taiwan and Singapore the seeds are banned because of their potential to be used in to grow opium poppies and even food containing the seeds is prohibited, although the ripe seed has negligible narcotic properties.
Golden morphia poppy heads are displayed on the Royal College of Anaesthetists coat of arms as they represent general anaesthetic and analgesia.
Photo AnnaÏck Guitteny