Shirley poppies are ornamental cultivars of the common poppy, originally selected by the Reverend William Wilks, who was the vicar of the parish of Shirley in England in the 1880s. They are now available in many shades of scarlet and orange, to pink, yellow and white, in single, semi-double or double forms. The flowers resemble Iceland poppies, except that their petals seem even more delicate. If seeds are sown in autumn, they should flower from September, although in colder regions flowering may be delayed. Shirley poppies are good companions for tall growing bulbs like Dutch irises or tall perennials and annuals.
The origins of the common or Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is not known for certain but is thought to be native to southern Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia. It was probably introduced into Britain along with agricultural crops at least as far back as the Late Bronze Age; and likely was also introduced to northwest Europe in the seed-corn of early settlers. The Flanders poppy has now become naturalised and widespread throughout much of Europe, Asia and North America where it can be found growing on a wide range of soils, but is most prolific on light, calcareous soils. The Flanders poppy is pollinated by insects, particularly bumble bees.
Flanders poppies have been immortalized in poetry for the carpet of red beauty they create when in full bloom. The association between poppies and the cycle of life also has a long history, partly due to the fertile nature of the plant; and the delicate red flowers have long been recognised as symbols of fertility and death. Poppies are also associated with crop plants and the yearly cycle of sowing seeds and reaping the harvest. With a single plant producing up to 60,000 seeds, imagine how many millions of seeds would be in a single field! In Briton, after the Second World War, the common poppy suffered a decline as a result of intensive agriculture and the ever increasing use of herbicides. The policy of ‘set-aside’ was then introduced in the 1980’s in which farmers were rewarded for taking agricultural land out of production. This protected the poppies and now their delicate red flowers are an attractive feature of the countryside, where they grow abundantly in agricultural fields, roadsides and wasteland.
Due to the extent of ground disturbance in warfare during World War I, corn poppies bloomed in between the trench lines and ‘no man's lands’ on the Western front. The contrast between this deathly sight and the following flush of poppies, seemingly ‘healing’ the broken land, inspired Canadian volunteer medical officer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to write the poem “In Flanders Fields”. These blood red flowers have been adopted as a symbol of remembrance since 11th November 1921 when the Royal British Legion held its first ‘Poppy Day’. The practice of wearing artificial poppies has been adopted in many countries on Remembrance Day, in honour and remembrance of veterans and those who have lost their lives during wars.
Poppy seeds have even been found mixed with Egyptian barley grains from around 2500 BC, and poppy seed heads were often associated with corn in images of the Roman crop goddess Ceres (or her Greek equivalent, Demeter).
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide and focuses on collecting seeds of plants which are under threat, as well as those which would be most useful for future use. The seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in a seed bank vault. Seventeen collections of Papaver rhoea seeds are held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.
Poppy seeds have a nutty taste and are used extensively as flavouring in cakes and bread. The seed oil is highly esteemed in France and elsewhere. The fresh young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach, and are used to flavour soups and salads. They are best used when tender and before the plant has produced flower buds.
The petals are a source of red dye used in some medicines and wines. Dried petals are occasionally used to give colour to potpourri.
The flowers have been used in treating mild pain caused by earache, toothache and neuralgia, and an infusion of the petals is traditionally taken for coughs, insomnia and poor digestion.
In the Garden:
Flanders poppies are sometimes added to wildflower seed mixtures to create colourful annual displays. They are a ‘must-have’ for any wildflower meadow or cottage garden and a good choice for any areas where ornamental grasses grow tall in summer. Because they are quite drought tolerant once established, they are also useful water-wise annuals to add colour in xeriscaping schemes. They are essential in butterfly and bee gardens and make a great impact if planted in mass, in large garden beds and borders.
Poppies love gardeners who pick for the vase – the more you pick them, the more they flower! If you don’t pick the blooms for the vase it is essential that you deadhead the spent blooms to keep them flowering.
TOP TIP: The flowers will last for several days if you pick them as soon as you see a blush of colour in the unopened bud and hold the base of the stems for a few seconds in an open flame, or boiling water, before arranging them in cold water. Harvest the dried seed heads with their tall stems in late summer to dry; these will add interest to any dry or fresh floral arrangement.
For late spring and early summer blooms, sow seeds in early autumn. For an early summer showing, sow seeds in early spring after the last frost. A cold winter promotes germination, so in warmer regions, refrigerate the seed for a month before sowing. Germination should occur within 2 to 3 weeks.
Select a site which receives full sun and prepare your poppy beds well, because poppies are best sown directly into garden beds. If you are planting out trays of seedlings from your garden centre, select the smallest plants, as these will grow better in the long run. Instant colour bags can be planted out it the roots are not disturbed when planting. Poppies will grow in most fertile, well-drained soils which are well dug over and raked to a fine tilth. Add compost if necessary. Mix the seeds with compost to help you scatter them more evenly by hand, or use a broadcast spreader to randomly sow the seeds over the prepared soil. Sow as thinly as possible. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of fine soil or sand to protect them from birds and small animals. Water gently, and until germination, keep the soil consistently slightly moist.
Thin the seedlings out when they reach a height of about 12cm; spacing them +-15cm apart. Alternatively, you can leave them to grow as small clumps of about 4 plants, spaced +-30cm apart. As poppies have a delicate root system, they should be watered gently until the roots are fully developed. Keep the beds free of weeds. If the soil is prepared well as is reasonably fertile, further feeding is rarely needed, but if you wish, you can fertilise with a liquid or granular fertiliser.
Although poppies are water-wise once established, if there are prolonged periods of little rainfall they will require moderate watering to grow and flower well. In the winter rainfall regions they will need regular watering in summer. When you do water, saturate the root zone thoroughly, as shallow watering promotes a shallow root system. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation works well with poppies because it keeps the foliage dry, helping to prevent fungal diseases and root rot. If watering by hand with a hose, or with a sprinkler, water early in the day so the leaves have time to dry before evening. To encourage prolonged flowering, take off any dead heads throughout the flowering season, removing the bloom, along with the stem, down to the next leaf.
If you want your plants to re-seed at the end of the season, leave a few plants to die down naturally and dig them into the beds. To ensure poppies come again from self-sown seed, the ground should be disturbed in the autumn; this gives space for the next generation of seedlings to establish.
If you wish to harvest and store seeds for next season, harvest the largest pods when they are fully mature and store in a paper bag or envelope, in a cool dark place.
WARNING: If you do not want the plants to seed themselves, it is vital that you remove all spent blooms throughout the growing season before they set seed and drop, because remember, the seed is viable in the soil for up to 80 years or more!
Pests & Diseases:
Look out for snails and slugs, especially when the plants are small. Soggy soil and damp foliage place the plant at risk of fungal diseases, so if the weather is humid and wet, watch out for powdery mildew, grey mould, root rot and damping off.
Various alkaloids are present in all parts of the plant, making this species mildly toxic to grazing animals and potentially poisonous to horses, cattle and sheep if ingested in large quantities; but its acrid taste puts most animals off anyway, making it a very useful deer resistant variety to plant.
The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, recording the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before eating certain plants or starting a home treatment programme.