Papaver rhoeas (common poppy)
A distinctive symbol of remembrance, the common poppy has seeds that can lie dormant for over 80 years.
About this species
Papaver rhoeas was formerly described by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in his seminal publication Species Plantarum in 1753. Papaver, also ‘pappa’, is the Latin for food or milk and rhoeas means red in Greek. The common poppy is thought to be native to the eastern Mediterranean region, and it seems likely that it was introduced to northwest Europe in the seed-corn of early settlers. The delicate red flowers are an attractive and popular feature of the countryside, and have long been recognised as symbols of fertility and death.
Geography & Distribution
The common poppy is thought to be native to southern Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia. It has become naturalised outside of this range and is now widespread throughout much of Europe, Asia and North America.
Stamens of Papaver rhoeas, Living Collection Virtual Herbarium, (Image: RBG Kew)
Overview: An annual herb growing up to 60 cm tall, with white latex and slender roots.
Leaves: Once or twice pinnately lobed, cut or toothed and stiffly hairy. The basal leaves are stalked, but the upper leaves are sessile (attached to the stem without a stalk).
Flowers: The showy scarlet flowers are 7-10 cm in diameter and are supported on long hairy stalks. The two free sepals fall as the flower opens. Each flower bears four rounded, overlapping, papery petals, which are normally vibrant blood red, though occasionally pink or white, and often have a dark blotch at the base. The petals are crumpled when in bud. The stamens (male parts) are numerous and the anthers (pollen-bearing parts) are bluish-black, and borne on slender black filaments. The stigma (female part that receives the pollen) is a disk with 8-12 rays.
Fruit: A smooth, hairless capsule 1-2 cm long, which is almost globose and no more than twice as long as wide.
Seeds: The small seeds are released through pores that open at the top of the capsule. They can remain dormant in the soil for 80 years or more.
Symbol of remembrance
Papaver rhoeas (Image: Peter Gasson)
The large, four-petalled, scarlet flowers of the common poppy have been adopted as a symbol of remembrance since 11th November 1921 when the Royal British Legion held its first ‘Poppy Day’.
Poppy seeds can lie dormant in the soil for over 80 years before germinating, which is usually triggered by disturbance of the soil. During the First World War the battlefields were often churned up into a sea of mud, and left strewn with fallen soldiers. The contrast between this horrendous sight and the following flush of poppies, seemingly ‘healing’ the broken land, inspired Canadian volunteer medical officer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae to write the poem In Flanders Fields:
‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…’
The practice of wearing artificial poppies has been adopted in many countries on Remembrance Day, in honour and remembrance of veterans and those who have lost their lives during wars.
Poppies and the cycle of life
Papaver rhoeas in Montpellier, Southern France (Image: Peter Gasson)
The association between poppies and the cycle of life has a long history, partly due to the fertile nature of the plant. A single plant can produce up to 60,000 seeds, which extrapolates to hundreds of millions of seeds in a field. It is also a result of the association of poppies with crop plants, and the yearly cycle of sowing seeds and reaping the harvest. Poppy seeds have been found mixed with Egyptian barley grains from around 2500 BC, and poppy seed heads were often associated with corn in images of the Roman crop goddess Ceres (or her Greek equivalent, Demeter).
Threats & Conservation
The common poppy suffered a decline with the advent of intensive agriculture and the increasing use of herbicides after the Second World War, but had a revival in Britain in the 1980s as a result of the policy of ‘set-aside’ in which farmers were rewarded for taking agricultural land out of production.
Papaver rhoeas in Montpellier, Southern France (Image: Peter Gasson)
Common poppy is a cultural icon which has become associated with wartime remembrance, especially during Remembrance Day (or Anzac Day in some Commonwealth countries). It also has a long history of medicinal use. The flowers have been used in treating mild pain caused by earache, toothache and neuralgia, and an infusion of the petals is traditionally taken for coughs, insomnia and poor digestion.
Poppy seeds have a nutty taste and are much used as a flavouring in cakes and bread, and the seed oil is highly esteemed in France and elsewhere. Young leaves of poppy can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach, and used to flavour soups and salads. They are best used when tender before the plant has produced flower buds.
The petals are a source of red dye used in some medicines and wines. Dried petals are occasionally used to give colour to pot-pourris.
Shirley poppies are ornamental cultivars of the common poppy, with petals ranging in colour from shades of scarlet and orange, to pink, yellow and white, in single, semi-double or double forms.
Common poppies are sometimes added to wildflower seed mixtures for habitat restoration and to create colourful annual displays of previously common cornfield flowers.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Papaver rhoeas seeds.
The popularly grown Shirley poppies are members of a cultivar group derived from Papaver rhoeas. These were selected by the Reverend William Wilks, who was the vicar of the parish of Shirley in England in the 1880s. Shirley poppies typically have a pale centre, although cultivars ranging from pure scarlet to pure white are available.
Common poppy at Kew
Herbarium specimen of Papaver rhoeas collected by Frances Giles (pharmacist) on 12 June 1895 in a cornfield near Folkestone, Kent (Image: RBG Kew)
The Economic Botany Collection includes flowers and petals of the common poppy.
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