Poppy love

Anna Pavord reveals Rev William Wilks's 20-year affair with Shirley
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The Independent Online
I always supposed that the Shirley poppies flowering now in the garden were named after some Temple-esque girl, given to floating chiffon. Not so. They are the creation of the Rev William Wilks, one of those fortunate 19th-century clergymen whose gardening took precedence over anything else in their lives. Wilks was vicar of Shirley, near Croydon, and created the strain from a single, white-edged poppy growing among the wild, plain red ones in a corner of his vicarage garden.

Wilks marked the flower, and the following year raised 200 plants from the single head of seed. He rogued his plants severely, and for 20 years selected only the best of the seedlings to grow on. In this laborious way, he created a strain of poppies, in a wide range of colours, that look like tissue paper left out in the rain. "I am about my flowers between three and four o'clock in the morning," he wrote, "so as to pull up and trample on the bad ones before the bees have a chance of conveying pollen to others."

The wild poppy of the cornfield from which the Shirley poppies were bred is Papaver rhoeas. I've been growing a wonderful mixture called `Angel's Choir' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 2.49), fragile, double-flowered Shirley poppies in fabulous, bruised colours: dirty, greyish pink, Victorian dove mauve, some colours with a picotee edge of a paler colour round their petals. The rain hasn't suited them but, between the torrents, I've been twisting bits of wire round the stems of some whose seed I want to save.

This is the way to fine-tune a mixture to your own ends, abandoning the wishy-washy colours you don't like and developing your own strain of seed. You can do it with other poppies, too, such as the Iceland poppies, Papaver nudicaule. They are neater plants than the rangy Shirley poppies, the flowers rising from a basal rosette of finely cut leaves, not hairy, like P rhoeas, but faintly glaucous.

The Shirley poppies sit on the blue side of the red spectrum, the Iceland poppies on the yellow side. But by endlessly selecting and sowing your own seed of the Iceland poppy, you can create your own mixtures of creams and apricots and pinks, eliminating, if you want, the bright yellows and oranges of the original species.

The question this season is whether the seed heads are ever going to dry off sufficiently to ripen seed. If they do, you should be able to collect it and sow it this month. Sow first in a 5-inch pot, just pressing the seed into the surface of the compost. Cover the pot with cling film and a slate or something similar to keep out the light until the seedlings have germinated. Prick out the seedlings into 3-inch pots and grow them on, before setting out the plants in early autumn.

That is the laborious way. If you have light, sandy soil and a lucky streak, you can just crush the seed heads and wave them over the patch you want to cover. This does not work on my heavy clay, which is why I go through the more long-winded process of raising plants in pots. Take with a pinch of salt seedsmen Thompson & Morgan's assertion that this poppy "will come up year after year in the garden".

Easier in that respect are the opium poppies, varieties of Papaver somniferum. These are the most trouble-free of all on our soil. Plants have grown 4ft tall this year, with masses of buds, minding the wet less than the Shirley poppies. The leaves are handsome, the best of all the poppies: rich, waxy, silvery. The common kind in our garden has deep purple flowers with dark smudges at the bottoms of the petals, which are ranged around a ring of pale cream stamens. Bumblebees come stumbling out of the flowers covered in white pollen.

Over the years, other colours have cropped up - a deep, almost black poppy, a beautiful magenta with purple smudges, a rich red - and these are the ones I mark for seed. The seedlings of the good ones often have leaves that are more intricately edged (as if they have been cut with pinking shears) than the ordinary kinds. The flowers don't last long, but the seedheads are dramatic, much better than those of either the Shirley or the Iceland poppies.

When the foliage starts to get drab and scrappy, you can pull up the opium poppies that you don't want, leaving the best to self-seed. Last year, I added a strange, fringed poppy, red with bold white smudges, called `Danebrog Laced' (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.39) hoping it would perpetuate itself as easily as the other opium poppies. It didn't.

Fortunately, there are plenty more to try. I haven't yet grown any of the great double powderpuff poppies, except the ubiquitous `Pink Chiffon'. Thompson & Morgan lists most of these under P laciniatum, but puts `Black Peony' (the name describes it exactly) under P paeoniflorum. Black Peony is the one I am going to add to the poppy mix this year. Of course, it's not really black, but it's intensely dramatic, growing about 3ft tall.

The best selection of poppy seed to sow now for displays next year is available from Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU (01473 688821) and Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB (01229 581137). Thompson & Morgan also hold the National Collection of annual poppies. It is open by appointment, for the price of a donation to the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens

Flowers courtesy of Wild at Heart, The Kiosk, Westbourne Grove, London W11 (0171-727 3095)