Sunday, 15 June 2014

Poppies great and small

Poppies can be very in-your-face plants. Some gardeners simply find them too brash; I love them. 

Oriental Poppies in my garden. 20 May, 2014

None is more brash than Papaver orientale, and I have several specimens in my garden. Breeders have produced other colours ranging from white to plum, but the original scarlet is surely unbeatable. It is not a native of the distant Orient but is found wild from Turkey to Iran.

Welsh Poppy in my garden.
1 June, 2014
By contrast the Welsh Poppy is, as its name suggests, native to these islands although, as a wild plant, it is confined to an area through Devon and Wales into Cumbria. For a century or so it was known as Meconopsis cambrica, but recent research into its genetics has confirmed that it is a true poppy and should now be called Papaver cambrica, thus reverting to the name originally given to it by Linnaeus. I'm afraid that in my garden it has the status of a lovely nuisance!

This lovely orange variation has recently cropped up in my garden.

The Greater Celandine is less obviously a member of the Poppy Family, Papaveraceae and, as Chelidonium majus, is placed in a separate genus. Around our village it thrives at the base of walls but, as the photo shows, it can survive in crevices.

Greater Celandine on a wall in Byfield.
3 May, 2014
Although not a Papaver species it shows its affinity in several ways, not least by the bright yellow juice which exudes from a broken stem. All members of the poppy family bleed juices and all seem to be laced with medically important alkaloids. In the case of Chelidonium majus, aka Greater Celandine, it has been used by herbalists over the centuries for a variety of ailments. Research continues.

Californian Poppy in the garden of my friend Sue Hamilton
in Hartwell. 4 July, 2014
The Californian Poppy, Eschscholzia californica, is a popular border plant. It rarely escapes but is naturalised in parts of Kent, where it finds quarries and railway embankments to its liking. When I was a child my mother often wore 'Californian Poppy' perfume. It was discontinued and therefore unavailable for many years but was relaunched in 1995 and is available from a few outlets.

The poppy "of Flanders' Fields" is Papaver rhoeas, once a major cornfield weed. The seeds are known to remain viable for up to eighty years and there is some anecdotal evidence for even longer periods. Herbicides have brought poppies under control but they will rapidly reassert themselves if given a chance. Certainly they were very common in John Clare's time and he wrote of:
                         "Corn Poppies, that in crimson dwell,
                          Call'd 'Head-ache' from their sickly smell."

                                                    Clare's Shepherd's Calendar, 1827

My maternal grandmother, an Earls Barton girl, also called them 'Head Aches' and frowned if I brought them into the house. In any case, the petals fell so quickly that they soon littered the area beneath a vase. In this specimen, photographed in Byfield Pocket Park, a petal dropped even as I stooped for a closer shot; four petals is the normal situation. The specific name 'rhoeas' may come from rhoea, the Greek word for a pomegranate; apparently the flower and fruit were thought to resemble pomegranates, but I find this idea unconvincing.

Sentiment makes Papaver rhoeas our best-known poppy but on the world stage it is far surpassed in importance by the Opium Poppy, Papaver somniferum, with somniferum meaning 'the bearer of sleep'. 

It is to be seen in a range of colours ranging from scarlet, through lilac to almost white. In this specimen the dark blotches at the base of the petals are very prominent; sometimes they are paler. It crops up in gardens everywhere around Byfield and I suspect that the seeds like those of cornfield poppies are able to lie in the ground for many years whilst remaining viable.

I once read of a theory that the word poppy comes from the word 'pap' - soft food given to infants - and that crushed poppy seeds were included in the pap to soothe crying babies! I am sceptical; the origins of the word poppy are obscure but I know of no solid evidence to link it with 'pap'.

Readers will know - or be disappointed to discover - that the amount of opium in the juice of the garden varieties is negligible. Certainly if an appropriate cut is made in the seed capsule a certain amount of juice oozes out but the active narcotic ingredients are lacking. I made a couple of cuts into what appeared a suitable seed capsule in our garden but the results were disappointing; I'll continue to make do with 'Night Nurse'.  Archaeologists have recovered Opium Poppy seeds at a Neolithic site near Raunds and it can be assumed that these were cultivated as an opium source. Has anyone in Britain ever been arrested or charged with growing these plants? Probably not. The case would be thrown out before reaching the courts. 

Several other species of poppy occur in Britain but I suspect there may be no strictly native species other than the Welsh Poppy and the Yellow Horned Poppy, Glaucium flavum. (This latter species is restricted to shingle beaches around our coasts and, as this blog generally concerns itself with Northamptonshire plants, is not discussed further.)  Our red-flowered species could all have arrived here as crop impurities in seed corn - but proof is lacking.

A potential nuisance they may be but I love to see them, these great survivors over the millennia.


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