Garden Views: Growing the poppies of November

Our view of the poppy changed forever with the poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian John McCrae, written during the First World War.

By MARY FRAN McQUADE

To a gardener, it’s odd that poppies are so prominent in November.

Cold-loving chrysanthemums make more sense at this time of year. Lately, even Christmas greens and trees are already appearing in garden shops.

The bright red poppy rightfully belongs to the month of August, the hot harvest-time.

But, as most Canadians know, all that changed in 1915. That’s the year John McCrae, poet-surgeon-soldier from Guelph, Ontario, wrote and published his historic poem, In Flanders Fields.

In three short verses, a field of blooming corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) were forever linked with the thousands of fallen soldiers at Ypres, Belgium.

Inspired by McCrae’s poem, an American woman named Moina Michael is thought to have started the custom of wearing poppies in honour of war veterans. A century later, after still more wars, we continue to wear poppies on Remembrance Day.

Such a lovely flower to carry so much weight on its slender stem.

Real-life beauties

With poppies so prominent this month, you might like to think about adding them to your garden in the spring.

Just the sight of the glorious living flowers will drive sad thoughts out of your head.

That’s only right, because back when people believed Greek and Roman gods were running things, poppies were associated with fertility, as well as sleep and ease of pain. Even now, hospitals use pain-relievers like morphine and codeine that are derived from opium poppies.

Unfortunately, the illegal use of “opiods” also brings many poor souls to the doors of death. That’s another battle yet to be fought and won.

Meanwhile. you can grow many other poppies guilt-free.

There are several kinds and colours to choose from. To me, they all look pretty much alike – and equally gorgeous.
Oriental poppies, P. orientale, started out in central Asia. Established plants don’t mind our cold winters. They like good drainage and come in a wide range of colours, including pink, red, plum and white. Flowers can have a single layer of delicate petals or, like roses, take a fuller, double form. There are even some that look like shaggy pink lion’s heads, with skinny petals sticking out in all directions.

Singles and doubles can be enormous – as much as 15 centimetres across. Crinkly silken petals burst out of fat green buds in late spring/early summer.

Place oriental poppies where later plants will fill in for them, since they’re notorious for disappearing during the hot summer months. They don’t like to be moved, so be very careful if you decide to shift them.

If you can get seeds in the fall, follow nature’s example and drop them in the garden where you want them to grow. Press them into the soil or scratch them in lightly to keep them in place. Alternatively, you can buy them as started plants in the spring.

Field poppies, P. rhoeas, are the corn poppies of Flanders Fields. Dormant seeds in the soil there sprouted after the chaos of battle.

You’ll also spot these poppies as flecks of red in grain fields or wildflower meadows painted by Claude Monet.

(“Corn” is the Old World word for grain.) The unmown meadows at Highfields, home of Prince Charles – a dedicated gardener himself – are also dotted with them.

Cheerful corn poppies are annuals, but reseed themselves from year to year. Start them like other annuals, from seed indoors or by sowing outdoors in April/May.

Besides the traditional red, you can find strains in a variety of pastels.

That “Other” poppy

The fabled opium poppy is, technically, illegal to grow in Canada, but some folks have them in their gardens just because they’re so darn pretty.

The seedpods, especially, are fantastic in dried flower arrangements. And some herb gardeners like to have them in their collections just for historical interest.

They’re undeniably interesting and full of folklore and stories.

Besides their drug connection, they’re the source of the poppy seeds we use in cooking. These have been known to cause false positive results in drug tests, so stay away from poppy seed buns or cakes if you’re likely to run into that situation.


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