The Poppy: A Flower To Remember

Ed Morris

Ed Morris

Plantlife Cymru Volunteer

8th November 2018


© Danny Beath/Plantlife

The National Museum of Wales in Cardiff currently has an exhibition on poppies, looking at their use in remembrance as well as their wider symbolism, ecology, and threats to their existence. The exhibition runs until 29th March 2019. I went along to find out more...

Poppies are a familiar sight at this time of year, commemorating the war dead from the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth. The tradition began in the early 1920s and is said to have been inspired by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, written by the WW1 Canadian soldier John McRae, who described the poppies which grew in the areas of Northern France and Southern Belgium where so much of the fighting of that war took place.

The exhibition features a central media screen surrounded by information boards covering different aspects of the poppy, as well as examples of poppy-related artefacts, maps, pictures, and lines of poetry in English and Welsh. There is also a poignant life-size model of the stages of regeneration of a battlefield, with bullet-strewn mud evolving into a poppy field. The exhibition is an excellent way to learn more about a very interesting flower.

The remembrance, or common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is an arable plant and was one of the first plants to recolonise disturbed ground, and for this reason it was widespread in the battle-scarred landscape of the Western front. The lime and calcium added to the soil from the bones of the fallen and rubble from destroyed buildings also encouraged the species to grow there.

Other remembrance poppies are the white, or peace poppy, first worn in 1933, and the purple poppy, which is worn in commemoration of animals killed in war. In France the cornflower, another arable specialist, is worn as the flower of remembrance, known as the Bleuet de France.

Poppies have a long history of human use and symbolism. The ancient Egyptians drew images of the flowers in murals, and the ancient Greeks wrote about its medicinal properties. In various cultures poppies have historically symbolised both peace (and sleep) or death: peace perhaps because of the sedative qualities of some species, and death due to the blood red colour of the most common varieties. On a happier note, in Persian culture the poppy was seen as a symbol of love and joy.

Poppy seeds and their oil are used in cooking in many cultures, while the opium poppy is the source of morphine, used in various painkillers and sedatives. This explains the inclusion of poppy seed pods on the coat of arms of the Royal College of Anaesthetists.

In the UK seven varieties can be seen, from around June to September. Not all have red petals – the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has white, pink and lilac flowers, while the Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica), the county flower of Montgomeryshire, is a delicate yellow. Some poppies are only found amongst arable fields, while others grow in woodlands and hedgerows and on the coast. Plantlife has developed a poppy spotter sheet for the exhibition to help people learn more about the different species.

If you plan to be in the capital over the next few months, I’d recommend taking a trip to see the exhibition. Poignant, moving and an interesting insight into the role poppies have played in human history.


Poppy spotter sheet

These bright and bold flowers can be seen across the landscape from June to September. While many poppies are dependent on arable fields (used for growing crops), they can also be found in woodlands and hedgerows, on disturbed ground, along roadsides and on the coast. There are seven varieties to spot. See how many you can find.

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