Poppy seeds need light to germinate, so every time the soil is cultivated buried seeds that are brought to the surface germinate and produce a blaze of scarlet flowers. Every year for the last 25 years, since we moved into our house, unsown corn poppies have flowered in the vegetable garden. This year's crop has now set seed, leaving these elegant little pepperpot-like seed capules - delightful objects of natural sculpture - that are the last reminder of the vivid splashes of flowers that graced the potato patch back in July. They've shaken their seeds out of the pores around the rim and added to the seemingly inexhausible seed bank in the soil.
Earlier this week I came across a remarkable account of the mass- flowering of poppies, in an obscure journal called the Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, published by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in 1917. The article is called The Flora of the Somme Battlefield, written by someone who simply signed themselves with the initials A.W.H. It's an account of a visit to the battlefield in the summer that followed the great battle of summer and autumn 1916. It must surely be one of the most poignant botanical accounts ever written, and I can do no better than to quote the author's own words.
Image: The effect of artillery bombardment - Passchendaele village, before and after the battle of 1917. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Passchendaele
"Villages, roads, open country, and woodland have been destroyed and ploughed up again and again by shells, with the result that hardly a level spot can be found. The surface of the ground is everywhere more-or-less pitted with shell-holes of varying size and depth, and can best be imitated by arranging innumerable cups and basins as closely together as possible so that their rims shall reach a general level. It is only on the rims of the shell holes that walking is possible".
"Looking over the devastated country from the Bapaume Road one saw only a vast expanse of weeds of cultivation which so completely covered the ground and dominated the landscape that all appeared to be a level surface. In July poppies predominated, and the sheet of colour as far as the eye could see was superb; a blaze of scarlet unbroken by tree or hedgerow".
"Charlock occurred in broad patches ....... though masked by the taller poppies. Numerous small patches were, however, conspicuous and these usually marked the more recently dug graves of men buried where they had fallen. No more moving sight can be imagined than this great expanse of open country gorgeous in its display of colour, dotted over with half-hidden white crosses of the dead. In no British cemetery, large or small, however beautiful of impressive it may be, can the same sentiments be evoked or feelings so deeply stirred. Nowhere, I imagine, can the magnitude of the struggle be better appreciated than in this peaceful, poppy-covered battlefield hallowed by its many scattered crossses."
A.W.H (1917) The Flora of the Somme Battlefield. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, Royal Botanic Garden , Kew Nos. 9 & 10, 1917, pp. 297-300.