Common poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

GenusPapaver (1)
SizeStem height: 20-60 cm (2)
Flower diameter: 5-10 cm (2)

Common and widespread (3).

The common poppy is a familiar wild flower, which has long been a symbol of death and rebirth, and is worn in many countries on Remembrance Day in order to commemorate those who lost their lives during warfare (4). The vibrant blood red blooms are supported by hairy stalks; the rounded petals are broader than they are long, and often have a dark spot at the base. Pink or white flowers may also occur. The stamens consist of violet coloured anthers borne on purplish-black filaments, and the stigma is a flattened disk with 8-14 rays (2). The branching stems are covered with stiff hairs, and the leaves are narrow and divided into toothed segments (2). The fruit is in the form of a capsule, capped by a disk; the small brown seeds are released via holes that open below the disk (5).

The poppy was introduced to Britain; it is known from Bronze Age deposits, and it seems to have been introduced with early agriculture (1), in the seed-corn of early settlers (4). It is now widespread throughout much of Britain; it is common in England and southeast Scotland but becomes rare in north-western Scotland and is mainly found close to the coast in Wales. It is thought to be native to southern Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia (2), but has become naturalised outside of this range (3).

A 'weed' of arable fields, disturbed and open habitats, the poppy thrives best on light calcareous soils. It is often included in wild flower mixtures, and occurs in many areas as a garden escape (3). It is vulnerable to herbicides, and tends to occur mainly in field margins and strips of fields that have not been sprayed (3).

The seedlings of this annual plant appear in spring (1). The flowers, which are present from April to August (5), are visited by a large range of insects, but particularly bees (2). Each plant is able to produce around 17, 000 seeds, these can remain dormant in the soil for 80 years or more, perhaps even as long as 100 years (1).

Poppy seeds have been found in Egyptian relics dating from 2,500 BC, and the poppy has been a symbol of death and rebirth since these times; it grows in the fields, is cut with the harvest and always returns the following year (4). The profusion of poppies on the First World War battlefields of Ypres and the Somme struck a chord with all who saw them. The war-churned wasteland of mud, shell holes and broken bodies had been transformed into a dazzling display of wild flowers, healing the land (4). The poem 'In Flanders Fields' written by a Canadian volunteer medical officer in Ypres during the winter of 1915 was published around the world. Following the publication of this poem, the practice of wearing artificial poppies to commemorate Armistice Day on the 11th of November became very popular, and continues today. In Britain, the Royal British Legion uses the proceeds from poppy sales to help ex-servicemen and women (4).

The intensification of agriculture that followed the Second World War had a serious impact on the poppy, and it was expelled from arable fields by the use of herbicides; becoming banished to field margins, hedgerows and neglected fields (4).

Happily, the ability of poppy seeds to lie dormant for as long as 100 years allows the species to make a come-back to areas from which it has been suppressed by herbicides and fertilisers. This phenomenon has been seen widely following the introduction of 'set-aside' land (taking surplus land out of production). More recently, agri-environment schemes have encouraged farmers to revert to more traditional forms of farming, which also allows the poppy and other wild flowers to make a resurgence. Plantlife has included the common poppy in its Common Plant Survey. This survey aims to determine the status of 65 common plants in Britain, in order to understand how these species are faring in the countryside and to effectively monitor changes in their populations (6).

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (Feb 2003):
  2. Clapham, A.R., Tutin, T.G. & Moore, D.M. (1987) Flora of the British Isles. 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. & Dines, T.D. (2002) The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
  5. Press, B. & Gibbons, B (1993) Photographic field guide to wild flowers of Britain and Europe. New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, London.
  6. Plantlife- Common Plant Survey (Feb 2003)