Papaver rhoeas is an annual herb that grows 12-30 inches tall. The flowers are large and showy with four overlapping, papery petals that can be white, pink, or orange, but are most commonly vivid red, often with a black or white blotch at their base. The flower stem is usually covered with coarse hairs that are held at right angles to the surface of the stem. A multitude of seeds are released from the capsule that develops following the flower, creating a long-lived seed bank in the soil. Poppy seeds can lie dormant for over 80 years before germinating, which is usually triggered by disturbance.
It is thought that Papaver rhoeas originated on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea and was probably introduced to northwestern Europe in the seedcorn (seed saved from one year's harvest for planting the following year) by early settlers, thus another of the common names, "corn poppy." It is known to have been associated with agriculture in the Old World since early times and has had ancient symbolism and association with agricultural fertility. A single plant can produce up to 60,000 seeds, and en masse when associated with field crops can yield hundreds of millions of seeds. Since it also has an affinity for pastures, stream banks, railroads, roadsides, and other disturbed sites, especially created by man, it has become very widespread and has naturalized throughout much of Europe, Asia and North America.
One of the world's most popular wildflowers, Papaver rhoeas is also known as Flanders poppy. These poppies bloomed prolifically on the Battlefields of Flanders, Belgium in World War I. Poppies growing in disturbed burial areas were the catalyst for the poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian medical officer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.
'In Flanders Fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row...'
Due to their brilliant red color ("rhoeas" being Greek for "red"), this poppy became a symbol for the war and was immortalized in this poem. Papaver rhoeas is a cultural icon which has become associated with wartime remembrance, especially on Remembrance Day, or Poppy Day, November 11, in Commonwealth countries. The practice of wearing artificial poppies has been adopted in many countries on this day, in honor and remembrance of veterans and those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Mona Bourell. Photos by Marc Johnson, Mona Bourell, and Joanne Taylor.