The bright red Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is one of our most iconic and best loved wild flowers.

Papaver rhoeas field

The red poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance for the terrible loss of life on the battlefields of the First World War. The poem "in Flanders Field" by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel  John McCrae, was the inspiration for this

"In Flanders fields the poppies grow,   Between the crosses, row on row..."

With the centenary of the end of WWI approaching a number of local council groups and individuals are looking to sow commemorative patches of poppy for summer 2018 and have asked what they need to do to achieve this.

In Summary the key points are as follows:

  • Poppies do best in a sunny open position on light free draining soils.
  • Poppies require a well prepared weed free seed bed and will not grow if sown amongst grass.
  • Poppy seed can be sown in Autumn or spring (August - March). Earlier sowing produces the best flowering displays.
  • Sow sparingly at 0.1 - 0.5g/m2
  • It is better to sow poppy as part of a cornfield annual mix.  This is less risky and will give a longer flowering display.

For more detail on these points read on...


Firstly, and most importantly, Poppies need open soil in which to grow

Poppies are annual wild flowers which grow in cultivated ground and other open and disturbed habitats.  Their seeds will lie dormant in the soil for decades waiting for a suitable opening. If a disturbed or cultivated bare patch of ground becomes available they can, over one season, spring up, flower, set seed then die before perennial grasses and weeds once again reclaim the space.  And so it was around the battlefields of the Western Front that poppies sprung up and bloomed in profusion in a landscape cultivated not by ploughs but on soil laid bare by explosive shells and mines.

Clearing and cultivating the ground before sowing poppies and other cornfields annuals is the first essential step to success.  Sowing into lawns or existing grass swards will not work; the seed will just lie dormant, or if it does germinate get smothered by grass.

Poppies like open ground in full sun

"'Neath the blue of sky, in the green of the corn, It is there that the regal red poppies are born!"

So wrote Victorian poet Clement Scott describing cornfields of the North Norfolk coast around Cromer and which he called ‘Poppy Land', a term which has endured  to this day.

Soil type and drainage is important

Poppies will grow on a wide range of soil types but seem to thrive best on light free draining soils.  The ‘Poppy land' soils of the Cromer ridge are free draining sandy loams.  The Cambridgeshire field from which this year's seed was sourced (in photo at head of article) is a well-drained chalky soil.  Poppies do not thrive in wet soils, it is not uncommon to see a patch of bright red poppies on the drier slope and ridge of a field, but fading out into the lower damp parts of the same field.

Poppy seed germination can be a little erratic

Poppy seed can survive for decades in the soil awaiting the right trigger to germinate and grow.  Getting sown poppy to grow on cue is not always entirely straightforward and predictable.  A variety of environmental triggers are probably important.  Exposure to light, a cold spell, fluctuating soil temperatures and nutrient availability all could play a part.

In practice best results are obtained from sowing in autumn or early spring when natural environmental triggers can release the seed from its dormancy.  Seed will germinate in flushes both in autumn and spring. Stronger plants with more flowers are usually produced from an autumn sowing.

Sowing rate

Poppy has tiny seeds; approximately 10,000 seeds in every gram!  Even allowing for erratic germination, in the right conditions only a very light seeding rate is needed to give a show: 0.1 - 0.5g/m2.  Note however that if ground conditions are not suitable increasing sowing rate is not likely to result in any greater success.

Poppies do not usually grow alone

Poppies will normally grow in competition with other weeds and crop plants.  In farm fields poppy is a weed most often associated with winter sown crops of wheat or oilseed rape.  Occasionally, where a crop has been weakened or failed (as in the very cold 2013 spring which decimated rape crops) poppy will become the dominant and most conspicuous plant. More often it is one of a range of weeds scattered through the crop.

In a garden or landscape context poppy sown alone will also have to compete with the usual range of garden weeds. Unless you start with particularly clean soil of the right type and drainage it may be difficult to predict how well poppy will do against weed competition.

In many situations the safest approach is to sow poppy as part of a cornfield annual mix.  The chance of getting a mixed display is greater than relying on just one species to deliver; the risk of complete failure or dominance of unwanted weeds is reduced.

Cornfield annuals after 10 years

Flowering Period

The flowering of a successful take of poppy can be quite dramatic, but sadly does not usually last long; a few weeks at most.  Sowing with other plant species helps to extend the flowering season a bit.  Our native wild plants are adapted to UK climate and conditions which means that they will synchronise their flowering and run to seed in midsummer when the weather is best.  In the case of cornfield annuals they are adapted to run to seed before the start of the corn harvest: Lammas day, 1st August.



Shirley Poppies:  A garden selection from wild poppies 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, but selections range from pure scarlet to pure white. Shirley poppies, like many domesticated plants, have lost their seed dormancy making them easier to germinate.

Opium poppy: is a completely different species Papaver somniferum. It sometimes pops up in the wild as a relic of past cultivation or garden use. Sometimes spontaneously amongst deliberate sowings of poppies and annuals as in the example below.

Corn poppy and Opium Poppy


Posted on 01 January 2018,
Category: News