Originally raised in the 1880's by the Reverend William Wilks in his garden in Shirley near Croydon in Surrey, this whole remarkable race comes from one solitary flower he spotted in a waste corner among a patch of the common scarlet Field Poppies which had a very narrow edge of white. Over the coming years he worked on the progeny of this one bloom by a process of selection and elimination to give us the Shirley Poppy we know today.
The flowers are often likened to tissue paper but they are actually much finer than that. The buds open to reveal crumpled, folded petals, which quickly attract furious activity from bees and butterflies.
When later writing on the subject, he set out what might be said to be the specification for his Poppy.
"Let it be noticed that true Shirley Poppies are ...... (1) are single, (2) always have a white base with (3) yellow or white stamens, anthers and pollen, (4) never have the smallest particle of black about them.
Double Poppies and Poppies with black centres may be greatly admired by some, but they are not Shirley Poppies."
He reflected, as so may we all, that the world's gardens are furnished with Poppies all the direct descendants of that one single seed capsule harvested in the Shirley Vicarage in 1880.
So that's what we have here. Poppies the Reverend Wilks would approve of, in colours from the brightest scarlet to pure white with all shades of pink in between and all varieties of flaked and edged flowers. All that and one of the easiest of plants to grow - just sow and forget, and lots of seeds to do just that.
Sowing: Direct sow in spring or in autumn.
Sow outdoors from spring to early summer or in the autumn for flowering the next season. staggered sowings through spring will extend the flowering season. Seeds are best sown directly where they are to flower in short drills 12mm (½in) deep at around 20°C (68°F). Cover lightly with soil, if sowing more than one annual in the same bed, mark the sowing areas with a ring of light coloured sand and label
Seeds germinate in less than two weeks. The seedlings will appear in rows approx 6 to 8 weeks after planting and can be told from nearby weed seedlings quite easily. Thin the seedlings out so they are finally 4 to 6 in apart by early summer.
Alternatively, leave them to grow as small clumps, of 4 to 6 plants every 30cm (12in) or so. Compost should be kept slightly moist, but not wet at all times.
Prefers well drained soil enriched with manure or compost ahead of planting. Feeding is rarely needed but water well if there are prolonged periods of drought.
Remove spent flowers to encourage prolific blooming. At the end of the season, if required, leave a few plants to die down and self seed. Others can be pulled up and composted
For Cut Flowers:
Cut when flowers are in bud, hold the base of the stems for a few seconds in a flame or boiling water, and the flowers will last several days in water.
Cottage/Informal Garden, Flower Borders and Beds, Wildflower meadows, Butterfly & Bee Gardens, Cut Flowers.
The origin of Papaver rhoeas is not known for certain. As with many such plants, the area of origin is often ascribed by Americans to Europe, and by northern Europeans to southern Europe. The European Garden Flora suggests that it is ‘Eurasia and North Africa’; in other words, the lands where agriculture has been practiced since the earliest times. It was probably introduced into Britain and Ireland along with agricultural crops at least as far back as the Late Bronze Age. It has had an old symbolism and association with agricultural fertility.
Common poppy is found on a wide range of soils but is most frequent on light, calcareous soils. It is a species of flowering plant in the poppy family, Papaveraceae and is pollinated by insects, particularly bumble bees.
The genus name Papaver is the classical Latin name for the poppy
The species name rhoeas is probably derived from the Latin word 'rho' meaning red.
Following on from the development of the Shirley Poppy, Sir Cedric Morris (1889-1982), the artist who gardened at Benton End in Hadleigh, Suffolk, bred his own series of poppies in muted shades of grey, lilac and purple. Developed around 1910, and originally marketed as ‘Sir Cedric Morris’ they can now be found under the name 'Mother of Pearl'.
Thompson & Morgan then used his strain to produce its fully double 'Angels Choir Mixed’ strain in 1980.
Reverend William Wilks (1843 - 1923)
The Reverend William Wilks was a notable British horticulturalist and clergyman.
Following education at Oxford University, William Wilks served as Curate in the parish of Croydon. In 1879 he became the incumbent of the parish of Shirley. During his 30 years in Shirley, new church schools, a men's institute and a new organ chamber were built, a cricket club was formed and a sports field purchased.
Wilks attained some fame as a horticulturalist and in 1867 The Royal Horticultural Society welcomed The Reverend Wilks as a Fellow. During his 25 years of service he instituted the Wisley Trial Grounds and Chelsea Flower Show.
He served as one of the most distinguished Secretaries of the Royal Horticultural Society, and the ornate wrought iron gates at the Society's garden at Wisley commemorate him. In 1912 he was awarded the highest honour of the Society, the Victoria Medal of Honour in Horticulture.
His most famous horticultural work concerned the breeding of the Shirley Poppy. Wilks noticed an unusual poppy in a corner of his garden ('abutting on the fields'). This was a minor variant of the wild poppy, Papaver rhoeas, in which the petals were bordered by a strip of white. From this slight variation, by patient crossing and selection, he bred the varied and ornamental 'Shirley Poppies'.
The Shirley poppy with its white base, yellow or white stamens, anthers and pollen and no trace of black is now known worldwide and is carved on the mace of Croydon's mayor.
Wilks' garden at the vicarage became a showpiece with plants from all over the world. Just prior to his retirement in 1912 he built 'The Wilderness' on seven acres of ground adjoining the vicarage. When William Wilks died on 2nd March 1923, the Wilderness was bought by the Methodist Society for use as an Old People's Home. The house was extended and renamed Hall Grange. The vicarage itself became a listed building of historical importance in 1983.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 1 gram Average Seed Count 7,500 Seeds Family Papaveraceae Genus Papaver Species rhoeas Cultivar Shirley Poppy Common Name The True Shirley Single Poppy Hardiness Hardy Annual Hardy Hardy to -15°C (5°F). Flowers From the brightest scarlet to pure white with all shades of pink in between Natural Flower Time Late Spring to Mid Summer Height 30 to 45cm (12 to 18in) Position Full Sun Aspect West or South facing. Sheltered. Soil Well drained, Light. Time to Sow Direct sow from early spring or in autumn.