HomeUltimate Flower Guide: Poppies
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Poppies: Ultimate Flower Guide

Floral symbol of peace and remembrance

With their big, red showy petals and dark black centres, the poppy is an unmistakable flower. Best known as a symbol of remembrance, poppies also have practical uses too. Over the years they've been used as ornamental plants, in medicines, cooking ingredients and even in cosmetics.

Poppy fields

Origins

Poppies, which are herbaceous annual, biennial or short-lived perennial plants, are believed to have originated in the Mediterranean region and date back to ancient times. However, these days different varieties are grown all over the world and they are a common site in eastern and southern Asia and throughout Europe.

The flowers can grow to be almost four feet tall, with flowers measuring six inches across and consisting of around four to six petals. The distinctive centre of the flower is made up of many stamens, which form a large whorl.

While most poppies are cultivated as ornamental plants, some species do have other uses as sources of drugs or food.

Most people will recognise poppies as a symbol of remembrance, after they were featured in John McRae's famous poem In Flanders Fields about the battles of World War One.

Types of poppy

While the bright red corn poppy is probably the variety most people know best, the flower actually comes in seven different colours (red, blue, white, orange, pink, purple, yellow) and a number of different species.

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Opium poppy:

The opium poppy is the species from which opium and poppy seeds are derived and as such are the source of many narcotics as well as food items such as seeds and oils.

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Oriental poppy:

The oriental poppy is native to Turkey and Iran and thrives in either the full sun or slightly shady areas. Naturally it is a brilliant scarlet, but selective breeding has created a range of colours, while the petals can be creased or fringed.

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Tulip poppy:

The bright yellow tulip poppy is native to Mexico and favours rocky habitats. They are typically solitary yellow cups with orange stamen.

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Corn poppy:

Also known as the field poppy and Flanders poppy, this variety is native to Europe and is normally found growing in abundance in agricultural fields. The large red flowers have four petals with black spots and the base.

Remembrance Day

In the run up to Remembrance Day on November 11th, millions of people across the UK will be wearing poppies as a symbol of remembrance for all those who have given their lives defending their country.

The Poppy Appeal is the British Legion's biggest fundraising campaign and it is estimated that they make 40 million Remembrance poppies every year but do you know the origins behind the tradition of wearing a poppy on November 11th?

During the First World War some of the bloodiest, most brutal fighting took place at Flanders in Belgium. Where there were once farms, homes and businesses, after the fierce battles little was left but fields of mud and the bodies of the fallen troops.

However one thing did survive - the poppy...

Once the warmer weather came around poppies began to grow and they did this each year. Their colour and life stretching over one of the worst battle sites became a symbol of hope for many people.

In 1915 John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving in the war, wrote a poem called 'In Flanders Fields' all about the poppy and the war. The first line depicts poppies blowing in the wind among the crosses. The poem was eventually published and the poppy became an official symbol of hope and remembrance.

Later, in 1918, an American poet called Moira Michael, wrote 'We Shall Keep the Faith' in which she urged people to wear a poppy 'in honour of the dead'.

Poppy fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

John McCrae, May 1915

Did you know?

Poppies are a symbol

of sleep, peace and death. Sleep because of the opium which can be extracted from them and death because of their blood red colour.

The poppy

which is used a symbol of remembrance, was the only wild flower to flourish on the battlefields of France in the First World War.

Poppy seeds

contain small quantities of morphine and codeine and were used as a form of pain relief by Egyptian doctors.

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Growing Poppies

The corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is an annual plant that can germinate when the soil is disturbed - this is how it managed to grow on the sites of battlefields. Generally it flowers in late spring, but if the weather is warm enough more flowers can pop up in early autumn too.

It's a big showy flower with four red petals, which often have a black spot at their base. Their size depends on the soil they are planted in; the poorer the soil the smaller and paler the blooms will be.

There are so many different varieties of poppy but all are grown in a similar way. You can either start them indoors a few weeks before the last frost or you can plant the seeds outside in March/April. Frost will kill the seedlings, so make sure you only put them outside once the weather has begun to get warmer.

Outside they prefer full sun or partial shade and soil that is well drained and slightly dry. Add general-purpose fertiliser once a month for best results and mulch around the base to keep weeds down. Poppies can cope well on their own, so unless you have a particularly dry spell, there's no need to water them.

To promote new blooms you should deadhead the flowers. But don't do this if you are planning on harvesting the seed.

Top Growing Tips

  • Poppies need to be planted in a well lit area in well-drained soil
  • To prevent seeding, dead-head the blooms, however, if you want them to spread simply leave alone to seed.
  • At the end of the summer, cut the stems back to the ground once the flowers have died.
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