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9 Nov 2018

Poppy seed from the battlefield

In January 1920, Miss Ettie Rout, Secretary of the New Zealand Volunteer Sisters and formerly in charge of the New Zealand red Cross at Villers Bretonneux, sent the Director of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney a packet of seeds.

The seeds were of the common Poppy and had been sent to Miss Rout by “the children of Villers Bretonneux” from the neighbourhood. The Director, Joseph Henry Maiden, sent a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald and offered to send seeds to the relatives of fallen soldiers.

Maiden wrote: “…I shall be very pleased indeed to send a tiny packet to the relatives of New South Wales soldiers in accordance with this lady’s wishes”. View the article as a PDF here. 

Regional newspapers soon reprinted the letter and written requests from all over the state began to flood in. So numerous were the responses that his supply was soon exhausted. Maiden then further corresponded with Miss Rout to ask for more seeds which she managed to acquire from a Mother Superior of an orphanage near the Somme (who wished to remain anonymous) in September of the same year.

A selection of those who received Poppy seeds.

By this time, though, another 234 applications for seed had arrived and the supply was completely used up. All up, some 286 packets of poppy seeds were sent during 1920. These transactions survive as records in the archival registers held at the Daniel Solander Library at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (inserted into the bottom of the page).

Joseph Maiden, Poppy seeds, royal botanic gardeny, australian history
Maiden later wrote about the Poppy seeds in his annual report for the year 1920.

Maiden kept half the seeds for further propagation and use, and also to give to a member of staff who had lost a son in the war. It is possible that some seeds were thereafter planted in the ‘Star Bed’ (originally created in 1915 but maintained for many years thereafter) patterned after the Victoria Cross Medal.

royal botanic garden sydney
The Star Bed in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

All that is left in the National Herbarium of NSW at the Garden are a few unlabelled packets of seeds without provenance, though this catalogue card for the very seeds initially sent by Ms. Rout still exists:

museum card, royal botanic garden sydney, poppy seeds

In the left column you will see, from the top down, an accession number and below that the word ‘capsules’, referring to an unspecified number of seed-bearing capsules from a plant.
In the main body of the card you will read, from top to bottom:
DUP NOI HERB – Which merely indicates that this specimen is a duplicate of materials already held in the seed store and is not held in the Herbarium.

5213/19 – a seed number. For internal use.

Pappaver spp.’ the species name, in this case a poppy but without any specific species identified (hence the general ‘spp.’) though see final paragraph below.

Villers-Bretonneux, Somme, France – Indicating the town, ‘department’, and country of origin.

[32-c-14] – This is a notation indicating the bed and map grid reference that was used in-house at the time and indicates that the seeds were at some time planted in this bed.
An interesting aside Maiden notes in his 2nd newspaper article on the poppies is that though the packet of seeds he received contained mostly the ‘common red’, ‘cornfield’ or ‘Flanders poppy’ (Papaver rhoeas), it also contained another species called ‘the smooth-headed poppy’ (Papaver dubium).

poppy, sydney
Category: History
Tags: history
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