I gasped with delight on seeing the parade of brilliant red poppies fluttering for hundreds of metres along Princess Parkway in Manchester. It was a few weeks since I'd driven that way, and it was totally unexpected to see such a magical spread, and so near the city's heart! Yes there have been crocuses and daffs aplenty on this central reservation, but loving British wildlife as I do, it was simply magical to see common poppies and other wildflowers growing there, and doing so well.
The wildflowers are a result of an innovative project i.e. Grow Wild:Flowers to the People (by Kew Royal Botanic Gardens and the Big Lottery Fund) that aims to bring people together by growing UK native plants. After an imaginative joint bid between organisations and community groups in Manchester and Liverpool, both cities have been chosen as one of the UK's 4 flagship sites and secured funding to transform several prominent open spaces by the use of wildflowers. Manchester's chosen location is the section of Princess Parkway through Hulme, together with some nearby open spaces, and several local schools.
I returned to Hulme with a friend a few days later to get a closer look. The Common Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) was indeed the most prominent of the wildflowers sown there, but others were the vibrant blue Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and the white daisylike Scentless Mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum).
Ironically perhaps for the Kew initative poppies are not really thought to be native to Britain but to have arrived accidentally mixed with the grain crops of the earliest neolithic settlers. (Native plants are those that grew here naturally before what was later to become Britain became seperated from mainland Europe some 9,000 years ago). Despite this query over their origins, poppies that have grown here for thousands of years, albeit mainly amongst wheat, oats and barley rather than naturally, have long held a place in our consciousness and been regarded as some of our most colourful “wildflowers”.
Some of the early common names for poppies were “cornroses,” “thunder- ups,” “thunderflowers” and “lightnings”. The first name reflects their close relationship with cereal crops, whilst the last three appear weather related – perhaps a superstition that to pick them would provoke storms, potentially disastrous to harvesting grain crops. In the twentieth century poppies – due to their proliferation on the battlefields of Flanders were chosen as symbols of the carnage of the First World War and synthetic versions have been sold each November since 1921 by the Royal British Legion in remembrance of that and other wars.
Farmers of course regard poppies as arable weeds. Many weeds (including poppies) are annual plants, which live only for a year and set seed in one summer. Their survival therefore depends on at least some of that seed getting a chance to grow in future years. In many cases of course the steps taken by modern farmers prevents this happening. Such steps include, ensuring that cereal seeds are free of weeds before they're sown, densely planting crops right to the edge of fields and spraying them repeatedly with herbicides. Farmers also use fertilizers to maximise crop yield and many arable weeds cannot tolerate the rich soils thereby created. Nationally therefore intensive agriculture has led to a big decline in the numbers of arable weeds such as poppies and cornflowers.
Despite modern agricultural practices some arable weeds have managed to survive. Common poppies for example can produce as many as 60,000 seeds per plant. A few of these may accidently get scattered along the base of hedgerows, in odd field corners and along nearby roadside verges and thereby survive for at least a year. Many others are likely to get covered over with soil when the field is ploughed and may lie dormant for decades. However if given the right conditions, especially not being sprayed with weedkillers and having access to light, they can flourish at some future date. This happened during the First World War when the constant shelling churned up the soil along the front line and brought dormant common poppy seeds to the surface. The northwest of England has never been a major cereal growing region and therefore poppies and other weeds haven't been especially common here. In his Flora of Cheshire (published 1899) Lord de Tabley said of the Bowden and Lymm area that “A poppy of any kind is a rarity”. The earlier plant distribution maps produced by the Botanical Society for the British Isles (BSBI) confirm this point.
Despite the historical picture and modern farming methods, since 1962 common poppies have actually increased their distribution in the northwest as well as other parts of England, Wales and Scotland. Some poppies will have undoubtedly survived in odd field corners and on nearby road verges. Others may be a result of countryside stewardship schemes whereby farmers are paid by government to manage their land in more environmentally friendly ways involving less use of herbicides and leaving parts of fields unsown with crops (known as setaside). Elsewhere though, as is the case with the flowers along Princess Parkway, poppies may have been sown deliberately as part of wildflower seed mixes that not only look attractive but at the same time help the survival of some of our best known wildflowers. Long may their use continue.