Blue Poppies

May is upon us and presents an opportunity to see and photograph the Himalayan Blue Poppy. Usually in bloom during the mid- to latter-part of the month at Butchart Gardens, it sometimes is described as their “most famous flower”. This reputation arises from the gorgeous blue of the filmy petals coupled with the rich gold of the anther cluster, the elegant structure of the plant, and a fascinating backstory that comes with it. Notoriously difficult to propagate from seed, the collection found in the Japanese Garden at Butchart is the best available in Victoria, though other examples may be found at Government House and probably in private gardens. Likewise, the Blue Poppy presents some significant photographic challenges. In this short essay I share some information about the plant and its origins, discuss the photographic challenges as they pertain at Butchart Gardens, and provide a synopsis of the backstory that accompanied this glorious flower in its journey to Butchart Gardens. 

The Himalayan Blue Poppy, sometimes referred to as the Tibetan Blue Poppy because of the region of origin, is a member of the Meconopsis (meaning poppy-like) Genus. It joins the Papavers (true poppies), such as opium and most garden poppies, in the larger poppy Family (Papaveraceae). Our subject generally is referred to as Meconopsis betoniciflora. However, in Butchart Gardens literature it is called Meconopsis baileyi. In most respects, they appear to be one and the same. This bit of botanical hairsplitting originates in the deep history of the plant’s journey from the Eastern Himalaya to the gardens of the world. More about that shortly. In fact, there are several Meconopsis sp. poppies found throughout the greater Himalaya and some of these produce blue flowers some or all of the time. They are most abundant in the high meadows and tundra of the Eastern Himalaya (Nepal and eastwards) and adjacent parts of the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces of China. Besides blue, notable reds and yellows characterize blossoms. In forty years of visiting the Himalaya from stem to stern, I have encountered blue poppies only once and these were the antipathy of the famous blue as encapsulated in the name Meconopsis horridula, known for their small flowers, thorn-like protrusions on leaves and stems, and their tendency to propagate on over-grazed and otherwise disturbed ground. The true poppies, Papavers, of the opium variety are encountered in village gardens throughout the Himalaya more for their prolific poppy seed production than otherwise. 

Many plants occupying public parks and gardens in Victoria, including Butchart Gardens, are species and their cultivars relocated from elsewhere in the world. Such relocation, both purposeful and accidental, has been part of the human endeavor for millennia. That which graces our parks and gardens is primarily the product of the period from about 1500 to 1950, accompanying European, and latterly American, exploratory expansion and colonialism. It reached its peak between 1750 and 1950 with the main actors being the so-called “plant hunters”, botanical experts among others in the employ of agricultural, horticultural and pharmaceutical interests. The economic, social and political impacts have shaped our way of life. The great botanical gardens and arboretums such as Kew, Edinburgh, Paris, and Harvard are products of this. The journey of the Himalayan Blue Poppy is one small but illustrative chapter.

Among the several blue poppies of the Himalaya, ours was spotted on July 10, 1913 by Captain F.M. Bailey in a high meadow where the Tsangpo River from Tibet cuts its way through the Himalaya to join the Brahmaputra River in northeast India. Pemakö, the specific location, is occasionally touted as the fabled Tibetan/Himalayan Shangri-La. More a trophy hunter, butterfly collector and protagonist in the “Great Game” for supremacy in central Asia at the time than a plant hunter, Bailey commented on the beauty of the poppy in his journal and thought no more of it. The main purpose of Bailey’s presence in the region was to complete a survey of the boundary country between Tibet and British India, now between Tibet and the Indian state of Arunachal, and to find the Tsangpo Gorge link to the Brahmaputra. He failed in the latter. Solving the Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorge became one of the great exploratory adventure challenges of the 20th century. Nowadays, running the gorge in raft or kayak is a prize in adventure tourism! Nonetheless, Bailey’s journal was read by others, including the renowned British planter hunter, Frank Kingdon Ward who noted the mention of the Blue Poppy. At some point in 1924, Kingdon Ward happened upon Bailey, then acting as a political officer in Gangtok, Sikkim. Bailey provided a precise description of the location of the poppy where later that year Kingdon Ward collected seeds and transported them to the Royal Horticultural Society and Kew. 

The Himalayan Blue Poppy blossoms were then displayed at the Chelsea Flower Show of 1926, becoming an unmatched horticultural sensation. The sensation arose from the beauty of the blossom and the mysterious glamour of the place from whence it came. It is not clear whether the plants on display at the Chelsea Show were from the seeds provided by Kingdon Ward or seeds gathered earlier by a Jesuit priest, Père Delvanay, in northern Yunnan in the 1880s and deposited at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. The former carried the name Meconopsis baileyi whereas the latter were known as Meconopsis betoniciflora. In his book, No Passport to Tibet, published in 1957, Bailey refers to the plant as “Meconopsis betoniciflora baileyi. Regardless, the sensational Himalayan Blue Poppy became a must have throughout the global horticultural community and business. 

It is no surprise that Jennie Butchart, among the most astute and determined horticulturalists, quickly acquired seeds in the late 1920’s, probably from Kingdon Ward’s collection, and the Blue Poppy was installed in the Japanese Garden. Completing the Blue Poppy circle, it is known that the poppies were well established when in the 1930s Lt.Col.(Ret.) Bailey visited Butchart Gardens, saw the poppies in bloom, and took tea with Jennie Butchart. In the words of Ed Douglas in his recent book, Himalaya: A Human History, “the blue poppy proved the perfect emblem of the Himalaya as a remote Eden”. One wishes the Himalaya had remained so today!

Whether in the Himalaya, the public and private gardens around the world, or Butchart Gardens, the Himalayan Blue Poppy is a worthy and challenging subject and object for photographers. The shaded and sheltered situation of the Japanese Garden does not replicate the high meadows of the Eastern Himalaya but it does provide a suitable habitat for the perpetuation of the plant and one that has both photographic advantages and challenges. Among the advantages are a usual arrangement of plantings that allows relatively close access to the blossoms and a relatively sheltered location that limits wind disturbance and harsh sunlight glare. Both are likely to be particularly advantageous in the morning hours shortly after opening of the gardens when windy conditions are less likely and when the sun is below its zenith. An added advantage in the early morning hours is that water droplets may be present on the petals, enhancing photographic interest. By the latter part of May, visitation to the gardens is increasing with busy foot traffic along the narrow walkways of the Japanese Garden. This makes extended photographic setups inconvenient and obstructive to other visitors, another reason for an early morning start. Though the use of a tripod is preferable, it may not be possible during high traffic. I have found a monopod to be an acceptable, less cumbersome substitute. 

We are very fortunate to have the Butchart plantings of the Himalayan Blue Poppy at hand. There are few other easily accessible examples of the same quality close by. In Canada an equally impressive, or more so, display of the poppy is found in Les Jardins de Métis near Mont Jolie, Québec established by Elsie Redford contemporaneously with that at Butchart Gardens. 

Sources and further readings about the Blue Poppy and its fascinating backstory include:

  • F.M. Bailey. 1957. No Passport to Tibet. London, The Travel Book Club, 294pp.
  • Tom Christopher (Ed.). 2003.  In the Land of the Blue Poppies: The Collected Plant-Hinting Writings of Frank Kingdon Ward. New York, Random House Modern Library, 243pp.
  • David Clarke. 2016. The Butchart Gardens: Over 100 Years in Bloom. Victoria, BC, Butchart Gardens Ltd., 72pp.
  • Kenneth Cox (Ed.). 2001. Frank Kingdon Wards Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges. Woodbridge, UK., Garden Press Antique Collectors’ Club. 355pp.
  • Ed Douglas. 2021. Himalaya: A Human History. New York, W.W.Norton & Co., 581pp.
  • Jamaica Kincaid. 2005. Among the Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya. Washington, DC., National Geographic Society, 191pp.
  • Bill Terry. 2009. Blue Heaven: Encounters with the Blue Poppy. Victoria, BC., Touchwood Editions, 184pp. 

Share This Post: