As Anzac Day approached we saw the poppy sellers on the streets, continuing a tradition first started in the United States in the early 1920s, before swiftly spreading around the world. The red poppy has become ubiquitous as the symbol of servicemen, perhaps partly based on the evocative lines from John McCrae's poem, written in 1915, shortly after he had buried a fallen friend - "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses row on row."
The poppy McRae saw in the muddy fields of Flanders is known to botanists as Papaver rhoeas, although it glories in a large number of common names, including red poppy, soldiers poppy, Flanders poppy, and to country folk in the United Kingdom, corn poppy. This last name, and the other soldier-related names, derive from the way this species pops up very soon after any land has been tilled, and quickly grows and flowers.
The corn poppy flower is interesting without being spectacular - red, bowl-shaped petals held quite upright, almost giving a tulip-like appearance. But, many years ago, an observant vicar in a small English town called Shirley, the Rev W Wilks, noticed one flower was slightly different to its compatriots - it was rimmed with a faint white ring. He carefully saved the seed from this one flower and sowed these, again carefully selecting for any differences, and within a few generations had created what we now call Shirley poppies, much beloved of cottage garden lovers.
There are many strains of these on the market, and some wonderful colours and shapes available. While many prefer the simplicity of the single flower forms, others like the exuberance of the doubles with their slightly raggedy feel. The most common forms have pink and reddish flowers, often with white trim, but there are some mauve, almost-grey, and apricot forms around too, so there is bound to be a colour to fit in with your garden schemes. If you find you have the common red wild species, it is best to weed these out as they will seed and you'll have a garden full of soldiers poppies the following year.
This is the right time of the year to be planting out the aristocrats of the annual poppy world, the Iceland poppies, P. nudicaule. Strictly speaking, these plants are actually perennials, hailing from the colder regions of northern America and Asia - and Iceland I assume, although I have no confirmation of that. In very cold areas they are reliably perennial and will last up to five years, but they do not like the heat of summer and will normally flag it away after their first flowering in our climate.
But what a flowering that is. Whereas the wild species have orange or yellow flowers on stems that tend to bend over, garden varieties have much stronger stems that stay upright, topped with flowers that come in white, orange, yellow, shades of pink, as well as blends. One of the great things is the flowers have petals thin enough that the sunlight can get through, meaning they shine with the sun behind them. There are several forms of these poppies ranging from quite tall and husky types, up to 60cm, through to some smaller growing forms like the great Wonderland.
Iceland poppies like a bit of food, and prefer solid soils rather than thin, sandy kinds so it pays to work plenty of fertiliser in before planting. They thrive in pots too, and of course they make fabulous cut flowers - I have strong childhood memories of gathering poppies and burning the bottom of the stems to make them last better in the vase.
As much as I love Iceland poppies, I am not sure another type is not my favourite - the old-fashioned perennial Oriental Poppy, Papaver orientalis. This one is truly perennial - plants will last for years and years, and will provide a long succession of beautiful crimpled flowers in a range of colours. My favourite is one I remember from my grandmother's garden, the fabulous salmon pink, Princess Victoria Louise. I have planted her at the back of the border in the backyard, where she shines with her crinkled flowers, in a pinkish shade of salmon, with contrasting black basal blotches. She mixes well with other subtle shades, and looks great with the Monarda and Penstemon she is planted alongside.
Oriental poppies are very long-lived perennials and in suitable sites will happily settle down for a sustained period - I have read of clumps that are 80 years old, so you need to choose where you are going to plant them. Although they are pretty unfussy as to soils, you should plant them in a sunny, or at most partly-shaded, site. There is one slight problem with them - the leaves die down after they flower and they can look a bit untidy, but you can just whip the leaves off and they will bounce back.
If you are more a fan of big bold flowers, and you want a giant form of the soldiers poppy, you should seek out Beauty of Livermere, which has huge crimson flowers on 50 to 60cm stems. Each has large petals with a prominent black blotch.
If you like big, blousy flowers and you have a flair for the dramatic, you should seek out some of the peony poppies, with flowers absolutely filled with petals. These are easily grown from seed, either sown now or in the early spring. I love the soft pink forms and have a soft spot for the white ones too, but if you want to make a different mark in your garden, look out the black form - it is startling!