Shirley Poppies: Their Hearts Were In It

One morning back in 1880, Mr. Wilks, Vicar of Shirley in England, noticed a patch of wild field poppies, one with a very narrow edge of white.

He marked it and saved the seed and, the following year, out of 200 plants, he noted that four or five of the flowers were edged. The best of these were marked and the seed saved.

Shirley PoppiesPin

This continued for several years, with the result that the flowers developed a larger infusion of white to tone down the red until, finally, they became pale pink. One was even absolutely N. white.

Mr. Wilks then set himself to change the black central portions of the flowers to yellow or white. Finally, he fixed a strain with petals varying in color from brightest scarlet to pure white, with all shades of pink between. All had yellow or white stamens, anthers and pollen, and a white base. Thus was born the colorful Shirley poppy.

All Over the World

As Mr. Wilks later wrote, “My name may have become- known throughout the world as secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society, but my Shirley Poppies are even more widely known, and that far more deservedly . . . for there is no country under the sun (except perhaps Patagonia and Tibet) to which I have not sent seeds gratuitously . . . and I am told that in the streets of Yokohama and of Rio, of Vancouver and Melbourne, of Paris, Shanghai and Berlin, of Cairo, Philadelphia, and Madrid, Shirley Poppies are freely advertised for sale.”

Poppies, pinks and lavender, sweet William and rosemary, primroses, fuchsias, and snapdragons—all have come down to us from the earth-stained hands of our ancestors. For the beautiful hybrids, we know today are the result of experiments begun during the 19th century by patient amateurs, fanciers as they were called, with a passion for perfection. 

Miners, weavers, silversmiths, glass-workers, maiden aunts, and clergymen, working usually with homemade contrivances in cottage or rectory or “high Flail” garden, somewhere in the old country, were the florists of the past.

Harmony Of Color

One of the best-known was Miss Gertrude Jekyll, who worked about the same time as Mr. Wilks. An English artist, who was, perhaps, the first gardener to concentrate on the harmony of color in flower gardens, Miss Jekyll spent years perfecting the Nlunstead primrose, named for her home. 

This is the primrose we see in florists’ windows in the spring, the yellow, white or cream-colored bunch-flowered or polyanthus type, with a deep yellow eye.

About her primroses, Miss Jekyll wrote, “The big yellow and white bunch Primroses are delightful room flowers, beautiful, and of sweetest scent. Mien full grown flower-stalks are ten inches long and more. Among the seedlings, there is always a certain number that is worthless. 

These are pounced upon as soon as they show their bloom, and cut up for greenery to go with the cut flowers, leaving the root-stalk with its middle foliage and cutting away the roots and any rough outside leaves.”

Sweet Rocket

Another clergyman, in Ireland this time, the Reverend Denis Knox of Virginian Rectory, was very well-known around 1902 for his double sweet rockets. This is a plant that deserves to be better known and grown in this country. We find single varieties growing wild around abandoned farms and in old gardens, but the double form is far less known.

Sweet-rocket was a favorite plant in England since the Tudor days, but the double variety in white, purple, and ruby-red was particularly chosen because it could not be grown from seed. Mr. Knox spent 30 years searching for the true old lilac variety and found it finally in a neglected cottage garden.

Double Sweet Rockets

At that time, he had six varieties in his garden and spoke of growing the old double white and lilac rockets to a length of 24” inches in the spike. He gave them a rich moist soil, well-enriched with plenty of old cow manure and lime rubble, dividing and replanting them in new soil every two years. 

He also removed all the side shoots for a greater length of the terminal spike. Then Cann: the 1st World War, and the old double sweet rockets became lost to cultivation. For years they were unknown, even in Ireland and Scotland, where they had been grown to perfection.

Now, at last, in England, the stock has been made available. These plants are described as easily-grown and beautiful, with an exquisite scent. They are said to be the most deliciously perfumed of all night-scented flowers.

Paisley Weavers

The old laced pink was a flower supremely favored in all the manufacturing districts of the British Isles in the 19th century. Its cultivation was the chief joy and solace of the weavers of Paisley, Scotland, who raised it to perfection. 

In 1767, only 12 sorts of pink were known. Forty years later, the Paisley weavers could show 70 or 80 choice varieties at their Floral Society shows. As usual, there was great rivalry among old growers of London, Manchester, and Paisley in the cultivation and display of this flower, but Paisley seems to have been foremost in developing it.

Paisley is remembered, as well, for the high reputation of its Floral Society, an organization, which was the forerunner of our modern horticultural societies. This particular group, whose members were simple weavers, yet highly intelligent, was so well organized and was administered with so much ability that the experience gained here was used as a basis in the founding of the two great horticultural societies, the Royal Horticultural Society and The Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society.

A clergyman writing at the end of the 18th century said, “It is well known that, not only for the execution of the most delicate ornamental muslins but for the invention of patterns, the operative manufacturers of Paisley stand unrivaled.”

Sweet william, with its “homely cottage smell”, still survives in its old auricula-eyed form to delight our eyes and our noses. The old double variety (Dianthus barbatus magnificus), described by George M. Taylor, in “British Garden Flowers”, as having “great heads of intensely double very dark crimson flowers” was lost for many years, but was found again in an old Scottish garden. Seed of this variety is obtainable from English firms.


Compared to the ancient lineage of the carnation, the pansy is of rather recent development. In 1813, Lord Gambier, who had a residence in Buckinghamshire, noticed the wild pansies growing in his fields and took them to his gardener to be cultivated.

Old-time florists, principally in the mining districts, took it from there and developed the show pansy. Like so many flowers grown by fanciers during the 19th century, rigid standards of perfection and artificial development were followed so meticulously that the pansy was in danger of becoming too formal.

However, it was rescued by French and Belgian growers, who imported show pansies from England and, following their standards of beauty, developed the fancy pansy, which was brought back to England from the Continent about 1840.

Although it is fascinating to consider the ancestry of our modern flowers, it is even more so to realize the innate love of beauty that found fulfillment in this pastime of men who worked with their hands. 

Perhaps, in the sonic future day, the exotic hybrids of the 21st century will be traced back to their first real development at the beginning of the atomic age. Perhaps, too, our hybridizers will manage to retain the quaint charm which is the essence of these old-time flowers so beloved by our ancestors.

44659 by Sylvia Davidson Oakes