When Rev. Wilks noticed a different kind of corn poppy in his garden, he decided to save the seed. Unlike most pure-flaming-red corn poppies, this one had a thin white edge.
Year after year, he planted from these seeds, saving more seed from the ones that showed the most unusual colorings and characteristics.
This old way of selecting seed takes time, but it led to the wonderful Shirley poppies, named after Rev. Wilks’s parish in Surrey. (Rev. Wilks also helped create the Shirley foxglove strain, still one of the finest today.)
Since 1880, when Wilks started out, Shirley poppies have undergone even more transformations.
Originally, they started out as a flower that capitalized on the disturbed ground that farmers created when they sowed grain; that’s why they’re called corn poppies. (In Europe, corn is any grain; what we call corn in the U.S. is called maize in most of the rest of the world.)
The wild Papaver rhoeas is still a symbol for war veterans; in World War I, they filled the fields in southern France, where so many people died.
The poem In Flanders Field says: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.” Probably in earlier times these flowers had associations with death and resurrection, since they die back every year, then come back so spectacularly from the tiny hard seeds in late spring.
After Wilks created the strain of Shirley poppies, artist Sir Cedric Morris selected his own strain, ‘Mother of Pearl’, from his Shirley poppy seed.
I grew ‘Mother of Pearl’ which has mostly pastel tints, but also reverts to the original red form.
I could use the rainy season to water and grow them, without doing any watering of my own. Papaver rhoeas is a Mediterranean plant, like most spring bulbs and herbs that are popular in the western world.
‘Mother of Pearl’ grew almost chest-high, and lasted a few weeks.
Unfortunately, I can no longer find ‘Mother of Pearl’.
But that’s all right. ‘Falling in Love’, a new introduction to poppy culture, is also quite beautiful, and shares some of ‘Mother of Pearl’s’ pastel traits – as well as their tendency to revert to pure red. All of the pictures in this post are of different versions of ‘Falling in Love’.
All Papaver rhoeas cultivars are excellent low-water plants. They germinate well in cool, rainy weather; I plant them in fall or early winter, and they oblige in late spring and early summer, a few weeks of luminescent bloom. Sometimes, if it’s hot and dry, I give them a little water to encourage them to last longer.
Mixing the tiny seed with dry organic flower fertilizer distributes seed better; I put about a teaspoon of seeds in a handful of fertilizer. Otherwise, I tend to get clumps of short, stunted flowers, and lots of space in between.
Shirley poppies have come so far that the original color combination Rev. Wilks noticed has been reversed.
When my ‘Falling in Love’ poppies finish, I’ll be sure to collect the seed.
I’ll be curious to see what comes of my own seed selection.