Poppies bring a riot of colour to the North East
PUBLISHED: 08:33 03 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:18 20 February 2013
Corn roses or thundercups – call them what you will – fields of scarlet poppies bring a welcome riot of colour to the North East now, proving summer's truly here
Eye-popping colour is everywhere. Bold, big-hearted, bloody, blowsy - the rich scarlet hue of poppies bobbing in the light breeze screams at us that summer in the North East is now in full swing. Who needs Chelsea Flower Show, Tatton or Hampton Court when theres a local flower show like this?
Its early afternoon and here we are knee deep in poppies, together with our cameras, at the edge of a field thats carpeted with them in the trim little village of Fourstones. Who can resist stopping to photograph poppies? Wherever the best displays appear closest to our home each year (in previous years its been Acomb, Chollerford and Wall) youll find us on our knees worshipping this rural wild flower as we struggle to capture its vivid but ephemeral beauty in a single, still image.
When it comes to the language of colour poppies have an edge on most native wild flowers in the countryside. If you consult a manual on photography most will recommend using a touch of red when composing a picture to provide an effective and immediate focal point for your audience. This is because red is a warm colour on the colour spectrum, unlike greens and blues for example.
Warm colours, like reds and oranges, stand out, appearing to be closer to the viewer than the cooler shades. Thats the theory at least, but theres certainly something about the loud red of a poppy that does it for us whatever the science behind it.
Poppy petals, like crumpled paper, together with their characteristic pepper pot seed capsules makes the species immediately recognisable. Even if youre not the worlds best at botany a poppy is distinctive and easy to ID. Theyre tall and gangly too and in the right fertile conditions in fields can grow to be as high as 90cm.
All the green bits of the poppy, such as the steam and leaves, are hairy, which is another plus point for us photographers because, along with the translucent petals, these flowers make brilliant subjects for backlit photo studies. We love nothing more than creating images of this wild flower that allow the light to shine right through the papery flower-heads, outlining each tiny, delicate hair on the plant with a soft, golden halo of luminance.
In Medieval times people used to call poppies corn roses which seems a fitting name for them because theres long been this connection between the flower and the countrys cereal fields.
Its said poppies could have been first brought to the country thousands of years ago by neolithic farmers and certainly theres a ton of folklore surrounding them to bolster such ancient connections.
This includes one famous superstition that its unlucky to pick them because it will bring on a storm. As a result of this belief poppies were often referred to as thundercups and thunderflowers.
Their other well-known association in modern times, of course, is with Remembrance Sunday when we wear a bright red poppy on our lapels and place poppy wreaths at public memorials to commemorate the war dead. Because poppies flowered on the battlefields of the First World War theyve become a powerful symbol of the loss of life in this and all subsequent wars.
The poppy flower has a further poignancy in that once its fully open it lasts for just a single day. Fortunately the plant usually has lots of flowers and its often possible to see fully-open flowers, buds and seed-heads all together on one individual plant.
Although the spectacle of a farmers field covered in a blanket of red is much rarer these days than in the past, poppies are still a fairly common summer sight here on the North Easts arable farmland even though theyre actually considered to be a weed. These days more efficient farming methods, including the use of herbicides, have meant that local
farmers are able to grow fields of cereal crops that are virtually weed and, thus, poppy free.
Poppies are also frequently found on waste ground, embankments and road verges. In fact a recent survey carried out by national plant charity, Plantlife, suggested roadside habitat may now be as important for the common poppy as the more traditional arable field. It reported that because the poppy as a species is such an opportunist it may be finding refuge by the roads as fields become less hospitable due to the spraying of herbicides.
In addition to roadside verges, poppies are also often spotted growing in the built up environment, for example on building sites - although when they grow up through cracks in the concrete in sites like these they dont tend to grow quite so tall and regal as the dancing field poppies we know and love.
The place to find the best displays this month is on farmland thats been set aside and on the edges of fields that have been left unsprayed. This can make it hard to predict from year to year exactly where the densest displays will pop up locally when conditions are right.
The abolition of the compulsory set-aside scheme for UK farmers (consultation has recently been underway on plans for a possible replacement voluntary scheme) may also have had an impact on displays in recent summers in the region.
The fact remains poppies are determined hangers-on in the landscape and we should still be seeing red in the region for summers to come. This is because poppies have vast seed banks in store and when the earth is broken or dug for the first time in several years they are more than capable of providing us with a sudden, unexpected and prolific display.
If you want to give them a welcome boost you can support more organic farming in our region which would effectively mean a reduction in the use of selective weed-killers.
Alternatively why not plant a wildflower area in your own back garden so you can enjoy a hot, scarlet summer right on the doorstep?