Types of Poppies for a Showy Spring

Colorful explosions of early spring poppy blooms are sure to prompt countless conversations regarding the poppy family’s long and fascinating history.

| Winter 2016-2017

Not so long ago, the word “poppy” commonly referred to a small, flower-shaped lapel pin crafted from red and black paper that veterans distributed on Memorial Day. Now, many who hear the word think of the tiny poppy seeds used in the culinary arts; Georgia O’Keefe’s iconic poppy paintings; the magical sleep-inducing field of poppies penned in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; the garden cultivars that add exotic, early spring pizazz; and even the illegal drug trade — raw opium is derived from the sap of the opium poppy.

Lemon Poppy Seed Muffin Recipe

All of the aforementioned associations refer to a large botanical family of plants, Papaveraceae, commonly called the “poppy family.” These plants have a worldwide distribution, but they favor subpolar to temperate latitudes with pronounced winters and poor, disturbed soils. Papaveraceae cultivars are sun-loving and, with a few exceptions, are short-lived annuals that reproduce primarily through seeds. Poppy plants’ exquisite flowers feature four to six oversized flaring petals with a tissue-paper-thin, finely crinkled texture that’s reminiscent of silken fabric. Color is usually, but not always, brilliant red with a black base. Each of these gorgeous flowers produces an abundance of pollen that bees consider pure gold. Perhaps the agriculture community and vegetable gardeners alike should launch a new mantra: “Plant Poppies!”

Of the nearly 200 species of plants commonly referred to as “poppy,” only a few types of poppies have commercial or ornamental value. These species are sure to start you down the poppy-lined road. 

From Flanders Fields to Main Street

With its thin, silky red petals and black centers, the corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) could easily serve as the archetype for the entire family. Corn poppies are so hardy that throughout England and Europe they’re often considered an agricultural pest. The alternate name, Flanders poppy, is based on John McCrae’s 1915 poem, “In Flanders Fields,” and its famous first line — “In Flanders fields the poppies blow” — which references the poppy blooms on soldiers’ graves in Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in Waregem, Belgium. For decades, the Veterans of Foreign Wars distributed paper or plastic representations of corn poppies on Memorial Day, solidifying the poppy’s symbolic meaning as a metaphor for the blood of fallen soldiers. 

A popular ornamental cultivar of the corn poppy, the ‘Shirley Poppy’ cultivar, was developed by William Wilks in the parish of Shirley, now a part of Greater London. This cultivar is robust with compact, fern-like leaves and is a prolific bloomer. Although red is still the dominant color, long-term genetic manipulations have developed a mixture of white and pastels — primarily pink and salmon — often on the same plant. Petals are also often augmented with white rims, and may or may not have black bases. Some variants feature fringed petals and even multi-petals. Flowers of the ‘Shirley Poppy’ are fragrant — unusual for poppies — so they lend themselves to indoor flower arrangements, which is also why this cultivar is marketed for widespread use in garden landscapes throughout the world.

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