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Day 21 : In Praise of Poppies

Posted: Wednesday 21st June 2017 by 30DaysWild2017

A field of Common PoppiesA field of Common Poppies

Slam on the brakes, it’s a field of poppies.

The striking scarlet of a field of poppies is one of the most startling sights of the summer countryside. Even the most attentive driver cannot resist a look and many slam on the brakes, get out the camera phone, and take a shot. Soon they will be showing their prized snaps to their friends, sufficient explanation for their late arrival.

Common or Corn PoppyA field full of poppies is a wildlife spectacle that no one should miss. This is not Bio-diversity, it is Bio-abundance. The poppies in this field are all the same species, thousands, probably millions of plants all producing their flowers simultaneously in a spectacle of abundance.

Poppies are a weed of agriculture. Their trick has been to have a life cycle and ecological requirements that fit very neatly within those of key crops, particularly cereals. Like cereals they grow best in newly disturbed ground, they have a short life cycle, they germinate and grow at the same time as cereal crops, and crucially they flower and set their seeds back into the ground before the crop is harvested.

As these photos show the poppies are setting their seeds at the same time as theCommon Poppy seed capsule wheat heads start to fill. The poppy seeds will be in the ground before the combine harvester arrives. So Poppies have become a fellow traveller of humans, more-or-less where ever there is cerebral farming. They are now found around the world.

Crucially the seeds of poppies can remain dormant for very many years, some say 100 years, and only some will germinate each year. So they lurk in the soil waiting for the right conditions. Today one of these right conditions is the farmer omitting to apply herbicides to the crop and kill off any germinating poppies at the earliest stage. Presumably the field I photographed yesterday had missed that crucial spray for some reason.

This field was one of three that I have come across this summer and was the most accessible. Running diagonally through the field is the Darcy Dalton Way long distance path. The field is beside the A424 between Stow and Burford in Oxfordshire and there is a large lay-by nearby making access safe.

Common Poppy flower budsSix different species of scarlet coloured poppies grow in Britain. This one, Corn or Common Poppy, is the one most likely to be found growing in such spectacular fashion. Small groups of poppies that you might see on roadsides, or indeed grow from a packet of wild flower seed mix, may be other species. The distinctive shape of the seed capsule is shown in this photograph and is the simplest indicator of species. So don’t assume that all poppies you see are Common Poppies. You might also see Opium Poppies, these are naturalised escapes from gardens or even relicts of cultivation, but they have quite distinctive glaucous coloured foliage and a more robust structure.

What about other so-called arable weeds, that is other plants which exploit the habitats of plant cultivation created by humans? There are quite a few of them but they are not so spectacular in their flower colour or size as poppies. They are often overlooked and are now very rare due to the constant use of herbicides. They are considered by some conservationists as the most threatened plant group in Britain.

The Worcestershire Wildlife Trust has a nature reserve dedicated to the conservation of these rare arable plants at Naunton Court Fields. These were fields that escaped the excessive use of herbicides and were captured by the Trust to ensure that the wild plants of arable crops can thrive. Management of the reserve is specialised, but the technqiue was once common place. It requires traditional cultivation of arable crops but without the use of herbicides and hoeing. This allows these special plants to complete their annual cycles. Find out more about arable weeds at Plantlife.

Graham Martin, Chair of the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust, opinions are my own not those of the Trust., @GrahamMartin99


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