Friday, 5 July 2013

A tale of two poppies

 David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Poppies on edge of wheatfield, Alan Porter
Poppy show offs,
in tissue thin red party frocks.
Diaphanous dazzlers,
you wear your scarlet dress for a day only,
then cast it off at night with gay abandon.
But what a party trick,
To dance with the wind
and scatter seeds down centuries
from pepper-pot time capsules.

David North

Everyone knows poppies are red! But this is a tale of two Norfolk poppies – the much loved common or field poppy which indeed glows red, crimson or scarlet depending on the light, and its less well-known, but equally beautiful seashore cousin, the horned poppy , which is a wonderful translucent yellow.

Every year I look forward to the sight of a field of wheat or barley rippling in the wind and filled with dancing poppy heads. It’s one of Norfolk’s great wildlife spectacles. A plant light and colour show perhaps only rivalled by the very different, but equally wonderful , sight of carpets of bluebells in our Norfolk ancient woodlands. If bluebells are the great spring plant extravaganza then surely poppies, painting a whole field scarlet, are the summer show-stopper of the plant world. And get ready, in a field near you this show may well just be getting under way. Now is the time to keep your eyes peeled for showy red poppies swaying in the breeze along roadside verges, transforming the disturbed ground of building sites and even town developments into areas of ethereal beauty, adding a splash of colour amongst the green heads of barley and wheat in our Norfolk countryside or just occasionally appearing in such numbers that whole fields turn a red that can be seen from miles away. I know of few natural spectacles that can stop cars in their tracks but several times while enjoying the sight of a whole field of poppies have heard the squeal of brakes and seen cars reverse up roads to pull in next to a poppy field.

These red poppies are of course the common or field poppy, a species whose abundance gave its name to ‘poppyland’ the area of the North Norfolk coast between Cromer and Overstrand. It was more than a century ago in the 1880s that writer Clement Scott first coined the name and with his articles in the Daily Telegraph and the publication in 1886 of his book ‘Poppy Land’ helped popularise this area with tourists from London.

‘On the grass of the cliff, at the edge of the steep,
God planted a garden – a garden of sleep!
‘Neath the blue of the sky, in the green of the corn,
It is there that the regal red poppies are born!

Clement Scott

Doubtless these nineteenth century tourists arriving by steam train at Cromer and Sheringham stations would have been able to buy any number of poppy-themed souvenirs in the shops and promenade along the sandy North Norfolk cliffs where poppies grew then as they still do today.

Our affection for poppies in Norfolk remains undiminished today. When the charity PlantLife first came up with a list of County flowers that had Norfolk’s County flower as alexanders there was so much dissent that a vote was carried out and common poppy won the day so we are now the only county to share a county flower. Essex also claims the poppy as its county flower.

The poppy is a great survivor and though not as common as in the past it remains a widespread plant. Poppy seeds have the remarkable ability to remain viable in the soil for decades and in some cases for 80 years or even a century or more. This explains why when soil left unturned for years is first disturbed poppies will often germinate and flower. Flanders fields during the First World War became red with poppies where shells had cratered the ground:

‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.’

John McCrae 1915

The poppy has also been the symbol of rememberance on Armistice Day since 11 November 1921 when the Royal British Legion held its first ‘Poppy Day’. More anciently poppies were associated with the Greek goddess of fertility, Demeter and the Roman crop goddess Ceres. Not many wildflowers are so loved as to have become children’s names but both Rose and Poppy are still used in this way.

Yellow-horned poppy, photo by David North
The red corn poppy however is not the only beautiful poppy that grows wild in Norfolk. From June onwards along shingly parts of our coast the nationally scarce yellow-horned poppy grows in abundance in a few places. If you like poppies then this more localised plant is well worth a trip to enjoy. Indeed you could argue that this is our only truly native wild poppy. Many people believe that our red poppies arrived in England with our first Neolithic farmers who brought primitive strains of cereals with them, emmer and einkorn and mixed with the corn would have been seeds of red poppies. The yellow-horned poppy has probably grown in Norfolk long before the first people arrived walking from the continent across land which is now sea after the end of the last ice age. I wonder if these first hunter-gatherers marveled at the beauty of the flowers around them – certainly they would have relied on an intimate knowledge of which plants were edible and which plants could be used to treat illness. Did poppy seeds form part of their diet? I wonder.

To see yellow-horned poppies there is no better place to go than the shingle edgeland of Norfolk – the great shingle ridge that runs from Blakeney Point to Weybourne. Walk a few hundred yards east from Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s beach car park at Cley and you will find one of the best displays of yellow-horned poppy in Norfolk. They are one of our most spectacular coastal flowers. Best viewed in the morning as like their country cousin common poppies many flowers last for less than a day – the fine, translucent petals opening in the morning and sometime falling by early afternoon. They seem to glow with an inner light –shining even when the sun isn’t, their diaphanous petals having a fairly-tale like quality as if they are flowers from another time or another world. Certainly I never tire of their beauty and though I have photographed them many times never quite feel I have captured that inner light they seem to possess. The horns referred to in their name are the seed pods. Unlike common poppies with their fascinating and intricate seed capsules that work like pepper-pots shaking the tiny black ripe seeds out as they sway in the wind or are knocked by passing animals the horned poppy has an long thin pod. This is said to be the longest seed pod of any British wild flower and can be 15 to 30cms long. Like all poppies the seeds are tiny. Yellow horned poppy plants have been seen bowling along beaches in the winter winds ‘tumbleweed’ fashion and the seeds are also very resistant to sea-water. So like their farmland red relatives they are great survivors. Living on Norfolk’s shingle ‘edgeland’ and surviving the worst of winter storms, battered by salt spray and icy north-easterly gales from the Arctic each winter, baked dry in summer by desiccating wind and relentless sun, and with roots into little more than mobile shingle, flint and sands this plant still produces to my mind one of our most magical and delicate of flowers often bejeweled with dew drops and a glorious soft lemon-yellow set against silver-green and slightly downy leaves.

Red or yellow our Norfolk poppies deserve to be celebrated and protected.

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