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What is a Poppy?

What is a Poppy? | Copyright GreenPlantSwap Ltd

The Common or Field poppy, Papaver rhoeas.

For most of us, the word “poppy” conjures up the familiar red-petalled single-stemmed flower which is used to commemorate the fallen in November, and which, in summer, can turn whole fields bright red.

This is the Common or Field poppy, Papaver rhoeas, pronounced Papa-ver roe-ay-ass. It is an annual plant, springing up from seed each year, flowering from June to August then dying down to nothing, but leaving behind many hundreds of tiny black seeds. These can lie in the ground for decades, only to spring into germination when the soil is disturbed enough to bring them back to the surface.

Our GreenPlantSwap Plant Finder has 84 plant listings for Poppy, and as well as Papaver, there are eleven other genera which use the word Poppy as their common name.

Within the Papaver genus, there are 19 species of Poppy, but the three main species are Papaver rhoeas; Papaver somniferum, the Opium poppy, another annual bearing large flowers in all shades of red from darkest cerise, through purple, lilac, scarlet and pink, even into white; and Papaver orientale, the perennial Oriental poppy with large untidy jagged leaves, and huge flowers with crinkled-silk petals in all shades of red and orange – and sometimes even more exotic shades.

Papaver orientale photoThe perennial Oriental poppy - crinkled silk petals in red, orange or more exotic shades.

All three of these share the same flower shape, despite differences in the quantity, size and texture of the petals, and they all produce the familiar crucible-shaped pepper-pot shaker of a seed pot, designed to let the seeds out as the autumn winds rock the dying stems, and scatter them all around.

The botanical name for the Poppy is Papaver, and etymlogical dictionaries suggest it is derived from “a reduplicated form of the imitative root pap meaning to swell." This could be taken to mean the inflated seed pods which most of this genus develop. As for the common name of Poppy, it appears to be derived from the Old English word 'popæg' but the meaning of this word is lost in the mists of time.

The Poppy in popular culture
Like many other “flower” or “plant” names, Poppy became a popular girl's name back in Victorian times, but unlike Violet and Ivy, it has stood the test of time and is, apparently, increasing in popularity, being currently in the top 30 names for baby girls.

The prevalence of these plant names inspired Cicely Mary Barker in her series of illustrated Flower Fairies books, and it is clear that her Poppy fairy represents a Field Poppy with the crumpled scarlet petals, hairy stem and nodding bud.

An interesting aspect of the Field Poppy is the alternative name of Headwark, the Middle English name for “headache”, so called because they are reputed to have an odour that will give you a headache if you breathe it for too long. This may be true, or it may be simply by association with the other annual, Opium poppy, P. somniferum, which is grown in some countries to produce opiates. If you remember the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy strays off the yellow brick road into a field of poppies and is overcome by them. The book (and the film) use the Poppies as a trap for unwary travellers, to prevent them reaching the Emerald City, but they are magical undying flowers, and not our everyday plants, and you are in no danger, even from a field of P. somniferum.

Poppy field photoDisturbed soil in First World War battlefields brought Poppy seeds to the surface creating the fields of red that have become the enduring symbol of remembrance.

Social history
In the UK the Poppy will always be associated with Remembrance day, a practice started in 1921 to commemorate the military personnel who have died in wars since the First World War. It is the custom to wear a poppy in the days running up to November 11th: obviously they are not in bloom at that time of year, so the production of artificial poppies has become a tradition in the UK. They are constructed by disabled military veterans and sold to raise funds for The Royal British Legion, who provide support for soldiers and their dependants.

The Remembrance Poppy has been cleverly reduced to a stylised form of two petals with a black button in the centre, and usually a single lobed leaf: but it is still quite recognisably a Field Poppy.

The Poppy was chosen as the symbol of remembrance because the First World War disturbed the soil of northern France in several ways - from troop movements, heavy machinery, trench digging and the burying of fallen soldiers - and this brought the poppy seeds to the surface. The fields, trenches and no-man's land were then covered in the flowers, and their bright red colour became the symbol for the blood spilled in the war.

What are Poppies used for?
Dried seed heads, particularly the larger P. somniferum ones, are used in floral displays where they add height and texture to the arrangement.

Poppy seeds are often used on in cooking, usually on top of bread rolls or bagels, for example, but don't be tempted to try this with seeds from your garden, for two main reasons: firstly, all members of the Papaver genus are toxic in flower, root, stem and foliage, so the chances of accidentally poisoning yourself would be quite high. Secondly, not all poppy seeds are edible, and you would want to be very sure that you had the correct ones! It is far safer to buy your poppy seeds, which will have been cleaned and treated to ensure they were safe to eat. It is notable that Poppy plants are rarely, if ever, troubled by browsing deer or rabbits, which says it all really.

Papaver somniferum photoThe Opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. Shades of red to darkest cerise.

The most famous, or infamous, use of Poppies is in the production of opium, which is used as a painkiller in medicine, or as a very addictive narcotic by foolish people who should know better. This involves growing fields of P. somniferum and scoring the growing seed heads to make them “bleed” the white latex which is collected, processed, and eventually turned into various opiates. This is done at the expense of seed production, but luckily the plants are such prolific seeders that just a few plants can provide thousands of seeds.

How do you know it's a Poppy?
The classic Common or Field poppy has four rounded overlapping petals, in shades of bright scarlet, usually with a dark blotch near to the centre. Each flower rises on a single, wiry green stem with a nodding bud, all densely covered with hairs which project at right angles to the stems, giving them a rather furry appearance. As the bud ripens, it turns itself upright to face the sun, and once the flower has been fertilised, the petals fall and the centre enlarges into the familiar green crucible shape. This contains several hundred tiny black seeds which are shaken loose by the wind, and which possess the ability to remain dormant in the soil for many years, until conditions are right for them to germinate.

Officially they are an agricultural weed, which explains many of the common names such as Field poppy, Corn poppy, Corn rose, and Common poppy: before the introduction of herbicides, they would grow so densely as to be mistaken for the actual crop! Sadly, they are of no use commercially, so it is understandable why farmers would need to kill it off, but it is lovely to see that changing agricultural practice means that occasionally, in the English countryside, we once again see whole fields of dancing red Poppies.

So that's the real Poppy, what about all the others? The Plant Finder offers 11 genera other than Papaver, and many of them are plants with flowers that are somewhat similar to the Papaver genus

Some are annuals with flowers that are very Poppy-like but wrongly coloured, such as the three Californian poppies: Romneya which has white flowers, Platystemon with creamy yellow flowers, and the cheerful orangey red petals of Eschscholzia.

Romneya coulteri photoRomneya coulteri, known as the Tree poppy. Very Poppy-like flowers, but white petals.

Then there is Glaucium flavum, a yellow-flowered native which is commonly known as Sea poppy for its liking for coastal shingle, or Horned poppy due to the shape of the thin, elongated seed pods.

Meconopsis or Asiatic poppy has 12 cultivars in our Plant Finder: the yellow-flowered Meconopsis cambrica is a common garden escape in the English countryside,and can be an over-enthusiastic thug in the garden: this genus includes Meconopsis betonicifolia, the rare and wonderful blue poppy which can grow up to 1.40m tall.

If you want a Poppy with very interesting foliage, look no further than Argemone, the Crested poppy, or Prickly poppy: there are four cultivars of this annual plant in the Plant Finder, and they have white or yellow flowers. Or you could look for Hunnemannia, which have feathery grey-green foliage and showy, bright yellow flowers.

Argemone mexicana photoArgemone mexicana - the prickly, grey-green leaved Mexican poppy.

Looking less and less like a Poppy, we have the perennial Eomecon chionantha, the Snow poppy which has, as you would expect, white flowers. They have four pointed petals, and thick rounded foliage: not much like a poppy at all, really!

Likewise there is Callirhoe, the Poppy mallow, which has striking dark cerise flowers, carried above low mounds of foliage. This plant can be spelled with one “r” or two, making it even less pronounceable.

Gaining in height, we have Dendromecon rigida, known as Tree poppy, or Bush poppy: it has yellow flowers, and silvery-grey leaves, and can be an interesting addition to a mixed border.

Finally we have Macleaya or Plume poppy: an imposing garden plant with tall spires of fluffy-looking tiny buff flowers – it looks more like an 8' tall Astilbe than a poppy!

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