Poppy not just beautiful flower

Thinking like a gardener, it’s odd that poppies are so prominent in November. Traditionally, the cold-loving chrysanthemum is November’s flower. Poppies belong to the month of August, the hot harvest-time.

But, as most Canadians know, those sweet country customs changed in 1915.

That’s the year John McCrae, poet-surgeon-soldier from Guelph, ON, wrote and published his historic poem, In Flanders Fields.  The three short verses link a burst of blooming corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) with the many fallen soldiers at Ypres, Belgium.

Inspired by McCrae’s poem, an American woman of that era, Moina Michael, is credited with starting the custom of wearing poppies in honour of war veterans.

Today, there’s an added layer of meaning – and perhaps irony – to the Remembrance Day poppy. Its dangerous lookalike, the opium poppy (P. somniferum), recalls the poppy fields of Afghanistan, where so many Canadian soldiers were lost. Sadly, those fields didn’t mark the graves of the fallen, however. The opium trade is thought to be one of the resources for financing the enemy Taliban forces.

Such a lovely flower to carry so much weight.

Real-life beauties
With poppies so prominent right now, you might want to think about adding them to your garden in the spring. Seeing these glorious flowers in bloom will drive all sad thoughts from your mind. That’s only right, since long before the First World War, poppies were associated with fertility, and sleep and ease of pain. Even now, many pain-relievers, like morphine and codeine, are still derived from opium poppies.

Don’t worry – you don’t have to risk being busted by the OPP for growing poppies. There are several kinds to choose from and, to me, they all look pretty much alike, and equally gorgeous.

Oriental poppies, P. orientale, started out in central Asia. They’re winter-hardy, like good drainage and come in lots of colours, including pink, red, plum and white. Get seeds or started plants and give them lots of sun (except for the plum/purples, which can get dingy in too-bright light). Flowers can be enormous – 15 cm across isn’t unusual. Silk crepe petals burst out of green pompom buds in late spring/early summer. Place oriental poppies where later plants will fill in for them, since they’re notorious for disappearing during the hot summer months. They don’t like to be moved, so decide carefully before digging.

Field poppies, P. rhoeas, are the corn poppies of Flanders Fields. Dormant seeds there were awakened when the soil was disturbed. You’ll also spot their flecks of red in grain fields or wildflower meadows painted by Claude Monet. (‘Corn’ is the Old World word for grain.) The unmown meadows at Highfields, home of Prince Charles, himself a dedicated gardener, are dotted with them, too. Cheerful corn poppies are annuals, reseeding themselves from year to year once they get established. Start them like other annuals, from seed indoors or by sowing outdoors in April/May. Besides the traditional red, you can find strains in a variety of pastels.

That other poppy
The fabled opium poppy is, technically, illegal to grow in Canada, but some folks have them in their gardens just because they’re so darn pretty. The seedpods, especially, are fantastic in dried flower arrangements. And some herb gardeners like to have them in their collections for innocent historical interest.

They’re undeniably interesting and full of folklore and stories. Besides their drug connection, they’re the source of the poppy seeds we cook with. Urban legend tells of people testing positive for drugs after a poppy seed bun. In fact, you’d have to eat at least a couple of bagels for that to happen (so stick to sesame, maybe).

Anyone who’s seen The Wizard of Oz recalls the memorable scene in which Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion and Toto fall into a deep sleep in a field of bewitched poppies. That’s just one imaginary example of Papaver somniferum at work.

Beautiful as it is, the opium poppy has caused wars and much public and private grief. Best to leave it alone. Besides… it’s just an annual.

Mary Fran McQuade is a hobby gardener and freelance writer.

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