Papaver rhoeas

Flanders poppy


Papaver rhoeas

L. 1753

pronounced: puh-PAY-vuh ROH-ee-ass

(Papaveraceae — the poppy family)


common names: Flanders poppy, corn poppy

Papaver was the Roman name for the poppy family; rhoeas was their name for the corn poppy, borrowed from the Greek 'ροιας (rhoias), the same plant.

The corn poppy was a common weed in both the cornfields and the battlefields of Flanders, and was adopted as a memorial of soldiers killed in World War I and subsequent wars. There are many cultivars, in most of which the intensity of the petal colour varies. One of the best known is the Shirley Poppy. In the late 1800s, the Revd William Wilks found a single poppy with a white edge to the petal. He harvested the seed pod and spent 20 years breeding new strains from it, and named the new varieties ‘Shirley’ after his Surrey parish.

The stems grow from a large taproot, and have white to yellow milky sap; they are multiple from the base, erect, branching, terete, typically green with some purple at the base, growing up to about 50 cm tall, hairy, and rough to the touch. The leaves are alternate, petiolate below, sessile above, pinnately divided. Petioles of the lower leaves are up to about 5 cm long, with a deep U-shaped groove on the upper side. The upper leaves are sessile. All the leaves have the divisions serrate, are acute, and hairy on both surfaces.

The flowers are borne singly on long peduncles, up to about 30 cm. There are 4 – 6 petals, usually scarlet with a white to typically black splotch at the base, glabrous, reniform to broadly obovate, to 5 cm long, 8 cm broad. There are many stamens, from below and exceeding the pistil, ascending. There are 2 sepals, about 3 cm long, elliptic, densely hairy but glabrous internally, with a nipple-like apex.

The fruit is in the form of a capsule, capped by a disk; the small brown seeds are released via holes that open below the disk.

A syrup may be made from the fresh petals, and used as an ingredient in soups. In Flanders and parts of Germany, the plant is cultivated for the sake of its seeds, which are not only used in cakes, but from which an oil is extracted. This is used as a substitute for olive oil. In some places the leaves of the plant are used as a vegetable.

Attempts have also been made, not very successfully, to use the red of the petals as a dye.

The plant is very slightly narcotic. Some people claim that the flowers have a smell of opium when fresh, although they become scentless on drying; but the presence of morphine in the plant has not been verified. Morphine is the most abundant alkaloid found in opium, the dried latex obtained from shallowly slicing the unripe seed pods of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. The seeds themselves of this poppy are an important food item and the source of poppyseed oil, a healthy edible oil that has many uses.


Photographs taken 2010, Picnic Bay
Page last updated 16th February 2019