A fascinating – and beautifully written – piece by Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica on the common poppy, Papaver rhoeas. It is one of the world’s most successful weeds and spread from Asia to Western Europe with the development of agriculture. For the ancient Egyptians it was a symbol of blood and new life. Mabey received a letter from a man who had lost two cousins in the War and thought it strange that he was ‘unaware of the English habit of wearing poppies on 11th November each year by way of remembering the Englishmen who died.’
That’s extraordinary: The British reduced to the English, and Richard Mabey’s interest in the transnational, transcontinental reach of the poppy seen as a slight on his native country. And in fact he writes movingly about poppies on the Western Front, how they appeared as early as 1915 from an obscene compost of men, mud and animals. And not just poppies. The painter William Orpen, who was a war artist, visited the Somme battlefield in 1917: ‘No words could express the beauty of it. The dreary dismal mud was baked white and pure – dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower (probably cornflowers), great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky a pure, dark blue, and the whole air, up to a height of about forty feet, thick with white butterflies: your clothes were covered with butterflies. It was like an enchanted land, but in the place of fairies there were thousands of little white crosses, marked ‘Unknown British Soldier’ for the most part.’
…. just a few notes now because I want to post something soon:
I’m sure Tina Reid won’t mind me putting here the thing she wrote on Facebook: “I went past those poppies last week en route between Cross Bones Graveyard and the Prospect of Whitby (day out for mother in law). I was shocked at how underwhelming yet still somehow jingoistic I found them. The Graveyard and the messages tied to the fence in contrast were unexpectedly moving. Anyway, I thought if I had to pass the poppies every day I would:
Imagine all those harsh shiny red objects are actual live white poppies.
Imagine them multiplied by 10 to include the other 9 million boys and men, children of those other countries, sent to their deaths a century ago.Imagine among them great drifts: another 5 million poppies, slightly pink tinged perhaps, for the 5 million non-combatants, old people, ill people, babies, mothers, who died as a result of the war to end all wars.
Imagine I belonged to a nation that makes great public art and that it’s art made to vindicate not commemorate, art that reiterates the national will to end war and that persuades the world we mean it. That would be worth coming up to London to see.”
names and properties
papaver somniferum (the opium poppy) for sleep and dreams and morphine.
papaver rhoeas (the common corn poppy) for remembrance.
The word ‘papaver’ is latin in a double sense: as well as being the scientific name for a particular genus of poppies it is also the word the Romans used for poppy.
The French for poppy, coquelicot means cockcrow, after the resemblance of the petals to a cock’s comb.
Shirley poppies, ‘perhaps the favourite of all cultivated poppies’, were bred by the Revd William Wilks, of Shirley in Surrey. He began with a single plant with a white margin to the petals and after many years developed a strain with a range of colours from pure scarlet to pure white. ‘White Shirley poppies are worn by peace movement supporters on Armistice Day to honour the dead without condoning war’. (quotes from Mabey.)
One poppy plant can produce 17,000 seeds. A good proportion of these will be viable for 40 years or more. The beds of poppies which appeared on the embankments and verges of the new Steeple Langford bypass in Wiltshire were celebrated.
The Daily Telegraph’s drama critic, Clement Scott, began writing ecstatic columns about what he called Poppy-land, clifftops near the new sea side resort of Cromer where he took holidays in the 1880’s. Soon, the Great Eastern Railway renamed the local branch line ‘the Poppy line’; thousands came to see the flowers.
They were used to make dolls. If the flower petals are folded down to make a skirt, a black hairy head is revealed.
They were symbols of growth, blood and new life for the Assyrians, the Greeks and the Romans.