Many Canadians are surprised to learn why “In Flanders fields the poppies blow” – as the poem suggests. If you visit the site of the battle today, you likely won’t find any poppies. And if you had visited prior to the First World War, you probably wouldn’t have found them either. So, why were they prolific during the devastation of the First World War?
The answer is that the devastation itself was responsible for the poppies growing on the battlefields of Flanders. Poppies are tough plants and their seeds are tougher still, lasting many, many years in the ground. Poppy seeds found in ancient Egyptian tombs have been germinated after thousands of years of dormancy. It seems that the destruction caused by the shelling over Flanders fields destroyed everything BUT the poppy seeds, which had been lying dormant for goodness knows how long, until the soil was disrupted and the seeds exposed to moisture and sunshine.
The poppy is a survivor and for that reason I think the flower is a fitting symbol for the fighting spirit of all those who fought for Canada in the Great War.
Perennial poppies are usually purchased as potted plants in the spring, and can be set out as soon as the soil has warmed up. The Oriental Poppy is probably the one most commonly grown. It will reach 60 to 90 cm (2 to 3 feet) in height and the same in width, with hairy stems and scarlet flowers in spring. In early summer it tends to die back when the weather gets hot, and the clumps can be easily lifted and divided in the fall. Pilosum is another species that produces flowers with more orange tones.
Most of these can be started from seed indoors, but transplanting is sometimes a little difficult. Alternatively sow the seed directly into the ground in early spring.
California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Resplendent in various shades of orange, buff and rose, the California Poppy has a low, spreading form and feathery, blue-green foliage. It grows to a height of 30 cm (12 inches) in the sun, and closes when daylight fades. Thus, this flower is unsuitable for cutting. Combine the California Poppy with blue Pansy or Ageratum at the front of a border for a stunning effect.
Mexican Tulip Poppy (Hunnemannia fumariaefolia)
Available only in yellow, this poppy closely resembles the California Poppy in foliage, flower form and requirements. The Mexican Tulip Poppy grows to at least 60 cm (2 feet), and its flowers can be used in cut arrangements if the bottom of the flower stem is first singed with a match.
Iceland Poppy (Papaver nudicaule)
The most easily transplanted of the varieties, the Iceland Poppy has delicate pastel blossoms surrounding a fringe of gold stamens. You’ll find salmon, gold, white and orange shades available, some of which produce double blooms. A biennial, this poppy is often treated as an annual. Its seed takes ten months to reach maturity.
Flanders Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)
This poppy of poetic fame is the one that holds a special significance to Canadians. The Shirley Poppy is the most popular form, often grown in single or double bi-coloured forms that lighten to white at their centres. Available in a multitude of shades of red or pink, this poppy grows between 40 and 60 cm (16 and 24 inches). It has delicate, paper-thin petals that last a short while; however, each plant produces multiple buds over the course of a couple weeks.
Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)
Best known for its derivative opium, this plant has wide open petals that are often bi-coloured combinations of salmon and purple, pink and black, red and black. Or, you may prefer it in its solid colour versions in an assortment of shades. Both single and double flower forms are available. Each flower lasts only one day.