“In Flanders Fields where poppies grow” is the opening line of a poem that is used in many countries to symbolize the sacrifices that others made in times of war. The poppies immortalized by the poem are papaver rhoeas, also known as corm poppy or field poppy.
Flanders poppies are easily recognized by their flower, which consists of four bright red petals that may or may not have a black spot at the base. At this time of year, when the poppies have finished blooming for the season, we purchase the artificial poppies to wear out of respect for those who serve or have served our country.
Flower buds hang downwards until just before bud opens. At that time, the stem straightens and the flower opens in an upright position. The plant is usually between 18 and 24 inches (44 and 58 cm) tall.
Locally, the poppies begin blooming from seed mid summer and continue until they encounter the first killer frost.
War produced the ideal environment for the poppies to flourish. Artillery fire killed existing vegetation, exposing the empty patches of soil that is needed for the poppy seeds to germinate. Soil in that particular area of Belgium is light and sandy, which is preferred by the poppies. Each poppy head contains upwards to 50,000 seeds. Even at one per cent germination, the survival rate is 500 new plants per flower.
During the First World War, fields near the areas of fighting were not tended for a number of years, which allowed the poppies to grow and reproduce, soon covering the area in red flowers.
In Europe, the field poppy has become a pest that can prove detrimental to field crops. Poppies will grow between the crop rows, using nutrient and moisture. More importantly, the white sap found within the poppies irritates animals’ stomachs, making it a major problem in forages.
Locally, the poppy can be prolific but they haven’t spread out of yards or gardens.
Poppies are easy to control by hand weeding or cultivation. Disturb the root of a poppy and the plant is likely to die.
Corn poppies, like other poppies, do not respond well to being transplanted.
It is best to sow poppy seed directly into the garden in the early spring or late fall.
Introducing the plants to the garden is as easy as sprinkling the seeds over the ground. Do not cover the seed with soil as seeds are light sensitive and will not germinate if they are buried in the ground.
In areas where the poppies have flourished for years, tilling the soil often brings seed to the surface and a new crop of poppies.
Corn poppies have evolved over the years. Newer varieties contain more petals and come in different colours and in bi-colours are available. They are known by the name shirley poppies.
The annual poppies are attractive and easy to grow, and are rarely bothered by pests, including deer. To control the spread of seed, remove the seed pod after the petals fall.
For those who wish to have poppies self seed, leave a few of the pods intact.
Seed can be harvested to use in baking and cooking.
Add some Flanders poppies to the garden next season as a way to remember others who have served or are serving our country.
They are bright, cheerful and will continue to self sow for many years.
Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist who lives near Rocky Mountain House. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.