Nature Studies: It takes exposure to the real thing to grasp the full power of the poppy

We invest so much in its symbolism that it's easy to forget the flower itself


It seems ironic that the flower in which we have invested more symbolism than any other this past century – symbolism which will reach a climax in six weeks’ time – should be one which in the wild we have largely wiped out.

For that is the paradox of the poppy. Do we still think of poppies as real blooms, brightly waving in fields? Or merely as pieces of red paper nestling in our buttonholes in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday in November?

I am inclined to think that for most people now, the principal image is the latter one, as poppy-wearing has become ubiquitous; poppy-flowering, on the other hand, is seen by fewer and fewer.

In fact, I have no doubt that today there must be countless people, the young especially, who have never experienced the involuntary gasp of and delight that comes with suddenly seeing a field full of scarlet, one of the most startling and uplifting sights the natural world has to offer.

For the common or field poppy – Papaver rhoaeas, once part of our very image of the countryside, has now gone from most of it. It is hard indeed these days to find a poppy field like the one Claude Monet so famously painted in the 19th century.

It was the archetypal arable plant – that is, the most typical wild flower of cornfields. There is a whole suite of wild plants which, when humans started agriculture about 10,000 BC, found they could flourish alongside farming, among the crops: essentially, plants which needed bare ground, and the soil surface to be broken (by ploughing), in order to germinate.

These wild flowers of cornfields have been part of the farmed landscape ever since, until 40 or 50 years ago, when agricultural intensification, especially the application of artificial fertilisers and herbicides, began to wipe them out.

Now many of them – such as cornflowers, corn marigolds and corn buttercups – are rare, while some, such as the lovely pale-purple corncockle, are virtually extinct. By comparison, common poppies are still widespread, but they have shrunk in numbers enormously and have vanished from many places.

At the same time, they have gone from strength to strength as symbols of our war dead, a representation which began, of course, with the First World War poem “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian army doctor John McCrae:


In Flanders fields the poppies grow

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


This symbolism will reach a culminating point on 5 August, when, to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Great War’s outbreak the day before, the dry moat at the Tower of London will be filled with nearly 900,000 ceramic poppies – 888,246 of them, to be precise, to represent every one of the British and colonial soldiers who died, according to the figures of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The moat will be turned into “a sea of red” until Armistice Day, 11 November, when the poppies will be sold to the public at £25 each; the money will go to military charities.

It sounds like a most imaginative and moving way to mark the outbreak of the “war to end wars” and I keenly look forward to seeing it; but last week, thinking about it, I was also seized with a desire to see real poppies once again, and so I went on a poppy pilgrimage to Kent.

For on the North Downs near Chatham the wild-flower charity Plantlife has a wonderful nature reserve, Ranscombe Farm, which specialises in protecting rare arable plants; it is one of the few sites in the country where corncockle still occurs. And walking around it with the warden, Richard Moyse, we came across a remarkable sight. In the valley below, were two fields. One was an intensively farmed field of beans, uniformly grey-green, with no hint of another colour; but next to it was a field that was exploding with bright red.

This, Richard explained, was a field which had just been taken out of farming and given over to conservation; and as poppy seeds remain in the soil for decades, if you stop spraying pesticides and just plough it over, they will all come up. And so they had.

I was thrilled by it. Not just by the great swathe of colour, so intense it left me elated; but by the fact that this symbol of loss for us, which we have taken to our hearts – and will do this summer more than ever – was not just a memorial, but still, despite its disappearances, a living flower as well.

Someone should tell Lady Gaga that porno-chic is out
Don't blame foreign players for England's demise at the World Cup
When will Britain admit to its alcohol problem?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little