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Papaver Amazing Grey

Every so often a very special plant emerges and the floral world ignites.The nature of the plant families on this planet are, that in order to survive inevitable constant climate change, they have the amazing ability to cross breed within their genera and thus adapt to the prevailing conditions and maybe tastes.

The global gardening market is vast. Big companies always have their eyes open for a plant with a real wow factor and they vie for plants with that something special that will catch the eye of the huge gardening demographic. It’s a sophisticated business. Sometimes it’s done in laboratories, in a methodical and calculated way. Using the latest and easily accessible micro-propagation techniques, it’s possible to bring an unusual sport or variation of a plant into commercial horticulture in a very short time. Some are special, often they look awkward, freaks, no value to wildlife, no part in the scheme of things.

I can’t be the first person who’s wondered what would happen if I could somehow pollinate that white poppy and that midnight purple one. Behind the scenes, a wonderful world of plant geeks are always tinkering about, I’m quite sure they always have been. Thank heavens. So many names stick out, people whose unusual understanding of a particular flower has led them to be tempted to select flowers with very special qualities, maybe get a brush out to cross pollinate two intriguingly related varieties…

The painter, botanist and aesthete, Cedric Morris springs to mind. His utterly gorgeous Benton Iris series are ravishing beyond belief, strange, subtle, shaded and scented and the subject of serious lust in the Black Shed household. We’ve been growing his extraordinary selections of our common field poppy for the last few years though. Instead of the wonderful clear vermillion scarlet of our native species, he chose those rare albino forms and their close crosses and somehow over the years selected a strain that throws every colour from subtle pinks to plum purples, faintly veined whites and, exquisitely, soft greys.

I’ve been pulling out the any reds, the dodgy pinks and just leaving the subtle greys and blushes. As the years pass by, the self sown seedlings have been pretty amazing, heading in the direction of that elusive faded slightly monochrome bloom.

But then came Papaver rhoeas Amazing Grey…

First available in the US last year, seed sold out in minutes. Photos of the first extraordinary dusky crumpled blooms ran through the floristry and gardening worlds as everyone scrambled for seed. We couldn’t get any, try as we may. We looked at people’s instagrams with suppressed envy.

It became more readily available and this year we got some seed. Rather than scattering it about, we grew it in modules, so that we could plant out a bed of it in our usual grid pattern.

We didn’t have to wait too long. Poppies grow very rapidly indeed. The unassuming leaves look just like our native wild poppy but as the buds grow and gradually turn their heads to the sun, you catch that first glimpse of the colour of the folded petals as they prepare to open. This is the time to cut them for the vase. All you need to do to enjoy them on your table is to pop their cut stems in boiling water for 5/10 seconds and then place them in the vase. In a cool place, they will last for a week before their precious petals fall.

All text and images ©Paul Stickland. First published in The Sherborne Times July 2020


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