Plant 260

Papaver rhoeas L. (Papaveraceae)

Corn poppy

In Britain, the corn poppy is a common naturalised species, which has probably been part of these islands' flora for thousands of years. Indeed, across its vast temperate Eurasian and American range, the corn poppy is closely associated with landscapes deliberately, and inadvertently, created by humans. The poppy's common name reflects its former common association with agriculture crops.

As an annual plant, the poppy's life cycle fits that of most cereal crops. It blooms and produces abundant fruit and seed before the crop is harvested, and the seeds, which form a persistent seed bank, readily germinate when soil is disturbed. Furthermore, poppy seedlings are tolerant of simple weed control techniques. Yet, by the early 1950s, botanists in southern England were bemoaning the disappearance of poppies from cornfields following the introduction of 'scientific agriculture', and herbicides, after the Second World War. Furthermore, until after the war, corn poppy flowers were apparently most commonly pure orange-red. Today, the most common sort of corn poppy has red petals with a black spot at the base.

In Britain, the complex patterns of variation found in wild corn poppy populations, in features such as leaf shape, hairs and flower colour, are recognised in numerous variety and form names. One of these, var. wilksii, was named by Oxford botanist George Claridge Druce in honour of the Victorian prelate William Wilks. Wilks developed the Shirley poppy, a popular multicoloured garden plant, from multiple selections of Papaver rhoeas in his garden at Shirley, near Croyden.

Poppy fruits are distinctive, urn-shaped, flat-topped structures that open by a ring of pores through which the seeds are readily shaken. The squat, hairless fruit of the corn poppy distinguishes it from the fruits of other common British poppy species.

Poppies have been associated with conflict since at least the early nineteenth century and the Napoleonic Wars. Churned up mud, on the battlefields of northern France provided ideal conditions for poppies to spring up. The Canadian war poet John McCrae vividly immortalised this biological response in the line 'In Flanders' field the poppies blow'.

In Britain and the Commonwealth, the poppy has become intimately associated with acts of remembrance associated with conflict. The taxonomic identity of the Remembrance Poppy has been lost since the cessation of hostilities between the allies of World War I and Germany, a century ago, on the 11th November 1918. The poppy's symbolism, however, has increased during that time.

Further reading

Kadereit JW 1990. Some suggestions on the geographical origin of the central, west and north European synanthropic species of Papaver L. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 103: 221-231.

Lack A 2016. Poppy. Reaktion Books.

McNaughton IM and Harper JI 1964. Biological Flora of the British Isles. No. 99. Papaver L. Journal of Ecology 52: 767-793.

Stephen Harris