And how did it become the Shirley poppy?

Yes, the fluffy pastel posies we now know as Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas) originated as blazing red-flowered weeds in European grain fields. Those four to six-petal blooms, blotched with mourning black, would achieve fame when a World War I doctor from Canada wrote:

In Flanders the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place. . .

Thanks to Colonel John McCrae, who probably penned those words in honor of his fallen friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, the flowers originally known as corn or field poppies would continue to “mark the place” of veterans for years to come. When crepe copies of them are passed out on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day, they remind us of the price in blood which has been paid for freedom. McCrae himself could be counted among the casualties. Although he didn’t die in battle, he did succumb to pneumonia near the end of war when he would only have been 46 years old.

Papaver rhoeas 'Angels' Choir'So how did a flaming flower that celebrated military valor acquire a more feminine look and name? The Shirley specified actually wasn’t a woman but a parish in England where the Reverend William Wilks served as vicar.

An avid gardener as well as a pastor, Wilks would describe in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society how his preoccupation with poppies began. “In 1880 I noticed in a waste corner of my garden abutting on the fields a patch of the common wild Poppy of the cornfields—Papaver rhoeas—one solitary flower of which had a very narrow white edging to the four petals. This one flower I marked and saved the seed of it alone.”

The following year, Wilks would grow about 200 plants from the seeds of that first one. Only four or five of those seedlings produced blooms which all were white-edged. Every year the vicar continued to save seeds from the best of his poppies, eventually toning down their colors to the point that he had pale pink flowers and finally pure white ones. This is the same process that horticulturalists use today.

Papaver rhoeas 'Angels' Choir'Wilks apparently didn’t care for the black blotches on the original field poppies because he bred those out. He was so dedicated to his task that he often would rise very early in the morning, once the plants began blooming, to root up any he didn’t like before pollen from their flowers was spread to others by bees. Wilks eventually would be awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour by the Royal Horticultural Society, for which he served as Secretary. His huge Shirley foxgloves still are popular too, proving that even we gardeners who aren't professional horticulturalists can improve the quality of our plants by careful selection.

The vicar must have preferred single poppies because he never tried to produce double ones himself. That would be left to later plant breeders who carried on the task that he had begun. Even though Papaver rhoeas no longer is just blood-red, its blooms still have something to say to us as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I's end. Those flowers can remind us that McCrae, too, counted on others to carry on the work he and his fellow soldiers had begun. He concluded his poem with the following challenge:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Images: The poppy photos are my own.