Ancient art and writings reveal that wild red poppies (papaver rhoeas) have been appreciated by humankind for thousand of years.
They have been found depicted on ancient Egyptian walls. Their medicinal and culinary merits are described in early Roman diaries. These poppies came to America with very early European settlers, gracing the gardens and medicine chests of New England and Williamsburg.
Of Mediterranean origin, the red poppy is well-traveled. Its fineseed, hidden in the grain that Roman soldiers carried and planted for animal fodder, was sown throughout the Roman Empire. Parts of the plant were used for dyes.
Poppy flowers are an outrageous scarlet. The large crinkly petals have a silky quality that gives them luminescence. The contrasting black blotch at the base of the petals only emphasizes their gaudiness. Held high above rosettes of foliage, each on a tall spindly stem, the bloom wave like banners.
For many of us, the poppy is synonymous with Memorial Day. Buying and wearing a small paper poppy was a traditional requirement in the week or so beforeMemorial Day, at least where I grew up. Local veterans' groups used the money raised by selling these mementos to help finance disabled veteran programs.
It also was an era when countless school childrenmemorized Canadian physician John McCrae's poem, "In Flanders fieldsthe poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row." Written during World War II, the poem by was once used as a heart-stirring inducement to recruit soldiers. It also embedded in generations of Americans thesurreal image of waving flowers and violent death somewhere far away.
The picture of white crosses amid a sea of red poppies is not a myth. Many World War I burial fields of France and Belgium had lain barren for years, trampled and packed, riddled with trenches and bomb holes.
Botanists were amazed when the new cemeteries burst forth with vibrant flowers that no one had planted -- so amazed that they flocked to the sites to experiments and test. Not only did they find that poppy seeds had great longevity, but there were more than 2,500 ofthem per square foot of soil.
Memorial Day, originally DecorationDay, was first observed in the late 1860s to commemorate Civil War dead. Historians disagree on where and when Decoration Day started. However, the World War I poppy seems to have achieved pre-eminence among the holiday's symbols.
In Howard County we see poppies primarilyas cultivated garden flowers, not the weeds that Europeans experience.
If you have grown poppies, or considered growing them, you haveprobably
discovered that the term "poppy" covers a large and confusing group of plants.
First, there is the poppy family, Papaveraceae, that covers more than 200 species, including un-poppylike plantssuch as Bleeding Heart (dicentra), Bloodroot (sanguinaria canadensis) and Celandine.
Then there is the genus, papaver, which garden encyclopedias maintain are the "true poppies."
For practical purposes the true poppies most available to us in Howard County for gardening are of three types: versions of the red poppy (papaver rhoeas), including "Shirley." Iceland poppies (papaver nudicaule) and Oriental poppies (papaver orientale).
True poppies have hairy stems and leaves, and milky sap. Under this system, California poppies (Eschscholziacaliforniea) don't count as real poppies.
I am excluding opium poppy (papaver somniferium) because its cultivation in the United States is illegal without a special permit. Paradoxically, seeds of the opium poppy may be bought and sold without penalty, and I have seen them in county garden centers.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of wild poppies locally is our fairly acid soil. Most poppies thrive in a neutral soil. Liming greatly increases success with them.
They dislike being transplanted. They prefer cool, dry, sunny conditions. Flowers fade quickly after picking.
Most popular poppies and their growing habits are:
Papaver rhoeas, also known as red, corn, field or Flanders poppy: Shirley poppies are derived from this species and come in many beautiful colors, especially pastels. They lack the characteristic basal black blotch. They grow 1 to 2 feet tall.
These annuals are best sown in early spring, or even late fall, to obtain bloom before the summer heat. Sow where they are to bloom, thinning to 9 inches apart. These are the poppies that are so eye-catching in the wildflower mixes seen along Howard County highways in recent years.
Papaver nudicaule or Iceland poppy: They are technically a perennial, but best grown here as a biennial. Start from seed outdoorsabout now. Transplant either to a temporary nursery bed for their first summer or directly to their permanent place.
Some varieties will bloom the first year if sown early, but most will bloom the next spring. "Wonderland" and "Bubbles" are popular varieties, each including pastels, yellows and white as well as red. Iceland poppies may or may not come back a third year.