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A walk through the poppy garden

It has been a week of celebration and commemoration for us. Firstly, my sole remaining aunt had her 80th birthday. On the following day, the Head Gardener’s only remaining aunt joined the 100-year-old club.

We took some potted plants up to the patio she has at her rest home, filled with dianthus and violas. We also took some extra soil to top up a barrel containing lilies that we underplanted with poppies.

This is, of course, the poppy time of the year, with the use of the red field poppy as the commemorative symbol of World War I in particular.

The field poppy is a common weed of cultivated lands in Europe, and it became a regular sight on the Western Front where the land was laid bare by the fighting. Come the spring, the poppies would burst through from the bare earth, blazing with red across the battlefields.

Canadian doctor John McRae wrote about the poppies flowering in the graveyards of Flanders fields in his famous poem, and in the years after the war, the poppy became the official symbol of the sacrifice made by so many.

It is a form of the wild species Papaver rhoeas, originally found in northern Africa and parts of Eurasia, but then carried across much of Europe then the temperate world by agriculturists who took the seed with their cereal seed. As above, it thrives in disturbed soils, so it was a common feature of fields sown with wheat and barley.

The flower is simple – a slightly wrinkled, red flower with overlapping petals, and a dark centre. The seeds, which are very long-lasting in the soil, can also be harvested and used as an ingredient in bread. They can also be boiled in milk and mixed with honey to make a sweet paste that is used a lot in European pastries.

An astute vicar in the small town of Shirley in England, noticed that one of the poppies growing in a corner of his garden near a cereal crop had a white rim around the edge of the petals. By dint of careful section over many years he managed to produce a strain of poppies from white through pink to red, and with mauve shades as well.

The work was taken up by other breeders, and now a range of semi-double and double forms are available in a wide range of colours.

There are some colours that are not found in Shirley poppies – if you are looking for yellow or orange flowers you will need to seek out some Iceland poppies.

In the bizarre way that these things seem to happen in the plant world, Iceland poppies are native to many places in the colder areas of the Northern Hemisphere, from North America, Europe and China – but they are not to be found anywhere in Iceland!

In the wild, the relatively bowl-shaped flowers are either white or yellow, but in cultivation, orange and near-red shades have been added.

The flowers are held atop 30cm hairy stems and appear from balloon-like buds, which are also hairy. They are great for the vase and have a slight fragrance. I recall, as a child, helping my mother harvest Iceland poppies from the garden, putting the ends of the stems into the flame from a candle to help them last in water.

There is a great variety of sizes in these plants now. There are some varieties that are small with large flowers, some dwarf with proportionately small flowers, and some taller with very large flowers.

Those with the largest flowers tend to produce less flowers per plant, but the individual flowers are magnificent – I have seen the ‘Colibri’ strain described as poppies on steroids.

Although they are short-lived perennials, they are usually so short-lived that they are treated as biennials – planted in the autumn for late winter-spring flowering.

They look fabulous in the home garden, especially if they can be planted in good-sized clumps, but they look even better when planted in massed groups. They do best in areas with cool winters and will die out once the heat builds up too much in summer.

I have seen great beds of these interspersed with tulips in the Wellington Botanic Garden, and in street plantings is Rotorua.

To do well with these extravagant beauties it is best to find a spot in full sun and to make sure that the soil is rich and well-drained. Take care with the watering – ensure they do not dry out in the few speels we have over winter without rain, but also make sure they are not waterlogged.

There are other wonderful poppies – the perennial Oriental poppy with huge flowers and true perennial growth; the ‘peony poppies’ with their over-doubled flowers in a range of colours from white through to almost black, and even a little dwarf species, P. alpinum, which looks like a miniature Iceland poppy.

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