Friday, September 27, 2013

Poppies and pantomime horses

Poppies - what a beautiful but strangely contentious group of plants. If you like big and bold, their big floppy, brilliantly coloured flowers can't fail to attract. They are however fleeting and each flower sadly lasts barely a day or so. I have always loved them and have quite a range of pictures in my photo collection. Over the last couple of years since I started painting, I find myself attracted to them as great subject matter and being honest, fairly easy to paint as the flowers are big and simple. Much easier to capture than roses with their many overlapping petals!

The simple red cornfield poppy, Papaver rhoeas is an annual and only grows when the soil is disturbed, so it fits well into the life cycle of a grain crop, much to the annoyance of farmers and pleasure of those of us that wield cameras.  It also has the deeper significance of the Remembrance Day Poppy, referring to its emergence on the graves of soldiers killed in Flanders, in World War I. Before that poppies had a significance in Greek mythology, including death and blood. The Shirley poppy is an improved form of this, in various colours developed in the 1880's, by the Rev Wilks, vicar of the parish of Shirley.

Native poppy in a cultivated meadow at the Eden Project

Roadside weeds

Rape seed and poppies
Shirley Poppies

The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum has a huge significance and history too. Back in the 19C there were major trade and diplomatic disputes between China and the British Empire. Vast quantities of opium was being trafficked from India into China. There was conflict within China between those who wanted to legalise its use and tax it, and those who campaigned to suppress its use. In 1838 the Emperor had the opium dealers arrested and tried to confiscate the stocks from the foreign importers. In response to this the British sent invading forces and demanded settlement. The Treaty of Nanking allowed further opium trade and also ceded Hong Kong to Britain. This was not the end of the conflict and the Second Opium War followed.

Commercial production

Nowadays laws differ according to the country as to whether the poppies may be grown or not. Opium is extracted from the latex exuding from the seedheads and  is generally controlled. However poppy seeds themselves have very minor quantities of opium so you are unlikely to fall asleep after eating a poppy seed roll! Although opium is still grown abroad, there are also now commercial crops in the UK. As a garden plant they are easy to grow but like all poppies, their display is sadly fleeting. The seedheads are also attractive and can be left to mature but watch out or you'll have thousands next year!

Opium poppies in a garden setting

Papaver somniferum 'Violetta'
Papaver somniferum - possibly 'Scarlet Peony'

There are other good garden poppies such as the big blowsy Oriental poppies - so wonderful but also with such a short flowering season. Plant towards the back of the border where they can remain hidden after flowering. Then there are Iceland poppies with their beautiful translucent petals in vibrant pastel shades and the pretty little ladybird poppy like a native poppy but with big black spots.

Papaver orientale 'Perry's White'

Papaver orientale 'Raspberry Queen' (where can I buy this?)

Papaver orientale 'Turkenlois'
Iceland Poppies
Ladybird Poppies
And just to check if my partner Philip is actually reading to the end, I must mention the musical 'Poppy'  which was first produced in 1982 and is actually about the Opium Wars. It takes the form of a pantomime complete with Dick Whittington, a dame and two pantomime horses! Dick sets sail for India and then China, Queen Victoria makes an appearance and in true pantomime style,  most of the players live happily ever after. Amazingly there was an earlier 1923 musical by the same name which first opened on Broadway and then moved to the Gaiety theatre in the West End. In this one, the principal character is called Poppy but there's not a flower or seedhead in sight!

1 comment:

  1. Papaver orientale 'Raspberry Queen' (where can I buy this?)

    Try the national collection at

    And follow the link to the 'super poppies' which should re-bloom if dead headed!