Poppies, Poppies, Poppies…

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“Come back tomorrow; the light will be better then.” A voice floats across the field. “Stand here in the morning. The poppies glow with the light under them!”

I turn towards the voice and see a figure dressed in full beekeeping gear, only head and shoulders visible over the hawthorn hedge. I pick my way across the furrowed ground, skirting the knee-deep ocean of scarlet flowers.

“Do your bees like poppies?” I ask, peering over the hedge. A gentle buzzing pervades the air, but the hives are hidden from view. The beekeeper removes his hood; his protective suit gleaming white against the pastoral landscape.
“Hard to tell,” a stray bee brushes his ear. “I haven’t had these long. Storm Katie did for the last lot. The roof blew off the hive and the queen flew away. The bees got soaked and they all perished of cold!”

“That’s awful.”

“Blessing in disguise – they were vicious little devils. I’ve got these ginger ones now. They’re more easy-going.”
The bees hum contently around him. I watch as one takes flight over the field. It skims the swathe of swaying blooms, before settling on the perfect specimen. This is papaver rhoeas, the common or corn poppy, not to be confused with its opium-producing cousin, papaver somniferum, grown in Afghanistan. This beautiful, blowsy wildflower, with petals like crinkled crepe paper, black centre and sturdy, hairy stem has brightened Britain since the Bronze Age. It prefers light, gravelly soil, but seems to be doing just fine here on cloddy Hampshire clay.

A field of blazing poppies used to be commonplace until intensive farming and herbicides changed the face of the countryside. Fortunately, some farmers are embracing more conservation-friendly methods, setting aside margins of land where wild flowers and wildlife can flourish. And sometimes Nature interferes. This field had been planted with winter rape seed, but after it was decimated by pigeons, mild spring weather encouraged a crop of poppies to take over. Poppy seeds can lie dormant for up to eighty years, and won’t germinate without sunshine and soil which has been disturbed in some way, such as digging, ploughing or even warfare.

For many, the sight of a field of poppies stirs thoughts of the First World War, and the flower has been a symbol of remembrance since Canadian serviceman, John McCrae, wrote after the battle of Ypres:
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 among the guns below.

Yet this association with death dates from much earlier. The Ancient Greeks decorated gravestones and tombs with bunches of poppies and were familiar with the plant’s narcotic and sedative properties. They knew that an overdose would lead to eternal sleep – as did the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz’:
“Poppies, poppies, poppies will put them to sleep”, she croaks over the steaming cauldron, as Toto, Dorothy and Cowardly Lion collapse into a Technicolour field of flowers. Mercifully, our heroes are saved by the counter-spell of Glinda, Good Witch of the North.

Over the following week, it seems every time I drive up the narrow lane, someone’s leaning on the five-bar gate or sneaking through that gap in the hedge. A young couple grin as they take a ‘selfie’ with poppies as a backdrop, a serious photographer arrives with tripod and wide-angle lens, hikers stop and stare. My sympathy to the farmer who’s lost his crop of rape-seed, but these glorious, iconic poppies have brought unexpected pleasure to many.