Steele: Special meaning carried by poppies

Of impact were the masses of glorious red poppies lining the country roads – especially when told they were wild Flanders poppies.

  • Nov. 13, 2012 8:00 p.m.

I first saw Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas) in England in1969.

My husband and I had been invited down from London, where we were working, to stay in a thatched-roofed cottage near Salisbury.

This intrigued me as my grandparents, William and Margaret Hughes-Games, were married January 1915 on Salisbury Plain just before Granddad was shipped off to France with the Seaforth Highlanders.

Our hostess took us to see Stonehenge. Back then, there were no fences and we could touch the stones making some high school history come alive.

Of equal impact was the sight of the masses of glorious red poppies lining the country roads – especially when Joan told us they were wild Flanders poppies.

We had yet to have our first garden but asked her if she could send us seeds. Since then they have been in every garden I have owned.

They grow in any soil, prefer the sun and need little water. After blooming for about four weeks in July they reliably self-seed.

In 1991, we took our young children to northern France. Travelling on the fast train from Calais to Amien we suddenly flew by rows and rows of white crosses surrounded in red poppies. It was an unexpected and incredibly moving sight.

As a result, the bullet-riddled buildings and war memorials everywhere had far more impact on me than the historical sites commemorating Joan of Arc that we had come to see.

Although they do not have the same emotional impact for me, I love several other species of poppies.

Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) produce a stunning display of large, vibrant blooms in May and June. Colours range from my favourite, blood-red ‘Beauty of Livermere’, through shades of violet, scarlet, orange, pink, white and bi-colours.

Plants are two to three feet high and wide. Unfortunately, after blooming, the plant goes semi-dormant causing foliage to die back, leaving a mess, so it is best to cut them back and have later-blooming large plants in front of them.

These tap-rooted perennials are hard to transplant but many will grow easily from seed.

They are best in full sun, tolerate most soils and need little water.

Plants are drought-tolerant and deer-proof, making them ideal for Okanagan gardens.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are another tough drought-tolerant poppy species that do well in our dry gardens.

Their cheery blooms will brighten any sunny spot from July through to frost. I just spotted some blooming Nov. 7 in my neighbourhood.

Native to California, they are commonly orange but yellow, peach and white variations are also available.

Plants do not survive our winters but reliably self-seed. They are about ten inches high and wide with feathery blue-green foliage.

They need well-drained soil but are otherwise very easy to grow.

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