Poppies: bright symbols of sacrifice and hope

Vivid blossoms inspire with many colors and forms

In The Garden

April 27, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row," wrote poet John McCrae in the midst of World War I. The poem lamented war's grim harvest, but it also celebrated the flowers that had sprung up in Belgium's newly dug war cemeteries as emblems of hope, the visible return of life.

"Those were corn poppies, Papaver commutatum 'Lady-bird,' " says Marilyn Barlow, owner of Select Seeds in Union, Conn. "Their seeds lie fallow for years until they are turned to the light -- either by a farmer's plow or by the gravedigger's shovel. Then they grow up and bloom."

Nearly a hundred years later, those blood-red poppies still symbolize remembrance of war dead.

"We sell that Flanders poppy and donate the proceeds to the British Legion, which looks after old soldiers," says English-woman Claire Burrows, vice president of Thompson & Morgan Seedsmen, whose American branch is in Jackson, N.J. In the United States, paper versions sold on Veterans Day benefit our veterans of foreign wars.


Poppies, which range in height from 1 foot to 5 feet, come in annual and perennial types. Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) are annuals that have been used (and abused) medicinally for pain relief and sleep inducement for thousands of years. But both perennial and annual poppies have also been beloved garden flowers for centuries, thanks to their gorgeous blooms.

"They come in every different sort of color you could imagine," says Burrows. 'There's something for everyone."

"But most don't have a nice smell," adds Barlow, "which is why the Elizabethan women called it 'John Silver-pin-fair-without-and-foul-within.' It's a long name but it tells a lot about the plant. The 'silver pin' part refers to the silvery hairs on the foliage of many varieties."

Annual varieties offer a broad range of bloom types as well as colors.

For example, 'Pink Paeony' and 'Black Paeony' are petticoat-frilled. Others ('Double Rasp-berry Blush' and 'Seriously Scarlet') have delicately intricate blooms like hand-torn Chinese fans. Still others, like 'Mother of Pearl,' which is a range of opalescent pinky-blue grays, have cup-shaped crepe-paper petals. Select Seeds' heirloom poppy (P. somniferum) has petals that look like tattered skirts. The California poppy (Eschsch-olzia), an annual that is also California's state flower, comes in south-of-the-border colors, many with finely pleated petals. And Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas) all have a distinctive white margin on the blooms.

"Shirley poppies were developed by Rev. W. Wills after he discovered a poppy with a white edge," says Barlow. "He named them after his hometown in England."

Iceland poppies (P. croceum) can behave as either biennials (grows up one year, blooms the second, then dies), or short-lived perennials.

Introduced into England from Siberia in 1730, they also grow on the edge of Greenland. But they bloom all summer here if the flowers are kept well picked. These poppies happen to be fragrant.

"The flower smells like a jonquil," says Barlow.

In addition to the annuals and biennials, there are several kinds of perennial poppies. Meconopsis, a poppy native to the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains comes in several colors, among them two gorgeous blues -- rich blue M. betonicifolia and M. grandis with tall, sky-blue flowers shot with violet. Also in this group are the Welsh poppy, (M. cambrica) with yellow or orange flowers, and M. napaulensis with rosy red cup-shaped blooms atop 3- to 5-foot green and gold foliage.

Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale), another perennial type, come in beautiful colors from ghostly gray-white through reds and orange to plum purple. Its main drawback is that unlike the annuals whose seed heads look decorative, once it's finished blooming, the plant looks like something General Sherman left behind on his march through Georgia.

"You can combine them with later-blooming companions to cover the poppy foliage in mid-season," advises plant hunter Dan Hinckley, founder of Heronswood Nursery in Kingston, Wash., which carries nine oriental poppy varieties.


Though many poppies are native to places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Morocco and the edge of the Arctic, in general poppies of nearly all stripes are very easy to grow. All prefer a sunny, well-drained spot.

For annuals, either plant potted plants whenever garden centers get them or sew seed directly into the ground anytime from early March through June.

Successive sowing (sowing more seed every two or three weeks) will result in successive blooms for annual varieties.

But beware: most annual poppies eventually fill surrounding beds with their payload of dried seeds for a bumper crop the next year.

"Don't plant them where you don't want them to return again," warns Burrows. Heavy mulching can help prevent broadcast seed from taking root, or you can clip off seed heads before they dry and open.


Thompson & Morgan Seedsmen

P.O. Box 1308

Jackson, NJ 08527-0308



Select Seeds

180 Stickney Hill Road

Union, CT 06076-4617



Heronswood Nursery

7530 NE 288th St.

Kingston, WA 98346-9502



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