red shirley poppy

Shirley poppies

Shirley poppies are not named after a person, but a place: Shirley, an area of Croydon which is in Surrey and is also part of Greater London. Shirley poppies were developed from the wild field poppy, Papaver rhoeas, which is native to Britain and Europe. This is the red ‘Remembrance poppy’ that we’re familiar with seeing pinned onto coats in November.

The Shirley poppy was first noticed and developed by the Reverend William Wilkes, who was the Vicar of Shirley from the late nineteenth century and was elected a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1867.  He was a Secretary of the RHS and was awarded the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour for his horticultural work.

At this time, in the nineteenth century,  Shirley was a hamlet of approximately 120 houses near the town of Croydon, and was surrounded by large estates and many fields. Shirley had and still has a windmill of the tower mill type. Interestingly, this was one of the last windmills to be built in Britain (in 1854) replacing an earlier one which had been destroyed by fire.

However, back to the poppies. In 1880, the new vicar of Shirley wrote in his diary:

“I noticed in a waste corner of my garden abutting on the fields a patch of the common wild field poppy, one solitary flower of which had a very narrow edge of white”

Reverend Wilkes (photograph courtesy of Croydon online)

A keen botanist, Wilkes’ curiosity was caught by this flower that differed from the surrounding poppies.

By carefully selecting flowers with the required characteristics Wilkes spent the next twenty years developing a strain of poppy which has yellow or white stamens, anther and pollen. There is no trace of black blotches found in the field poppies at the base of the petals; a true Shirley poppy has a white base. The petal colours range from white through to pale lilac, pink, sometimes yellow and orange but the soft hues tend to predominate.

Shirley poppies are now famous worldwide as a reliable and attractive garden flower. Its importance is recognised locally as the flower has a place of honour on the Croydon Mayor’s mace, or staff of office; the head of the silver mace is decorated with the Shirley poppy.

From the 1920s there were a large number of houses built in Shirley, largely as a result of the expansion of the London commuting population. By 1935 this had created the need for a pub – which was named ‘The Shirley Poppy’ pub. Today it’s a burger outlet, but you can still find Shirley poppies in local gardens and across the seas.

peachy coloured shirley poppy

Both the Shirley poppy and the field poppy are annual flowers, and both poppies will self-seed once established. To start with you‘ll need to buy a packet of seeds, or ask for some home collected seeds from a friend. Sowing seed in the autumn should give you flowers the following year from May; or you can sprinkle the seeds in April and the poppies should flower from June.

Deadheading encourages more flowers, of course, but if you like easy gardening, then leave some of the later flowers on the plant so they can set seed. You’ll be rewarded with lots of small plants scattered around the garden.

The leaves make it obviously a poppy from an early age, so seedlings can be hoed up if in the wrong place. If your first sowing of Shirley poppies throws up flower colours you are less keen on, then be sure to deadhead those before any seed is dispersed.

I personally prefer my yellow poppies to be Welsh (Papaver cambrensis) or Californian (Eschscholzia californica). I like my Shirley poppies to be soft shades, although I do like both the single and semi-double varieties.

And I also like finding the story behind the names of our garden plants and flowers. Makes for a sociable garden don’t you think?

shirley poppies

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