The blue poppies are amongst the most tantalizing plants we grow – or try to grow, at least. These exotic relatives of the corn poppy and Oriental poppy instantly attract visitors in any gardens where they’re in bloom. The Himalayan blue poppy… the very name is exciting. We’re almost in Indiana Jones country…
But there’s no doubt that not only are many species difficult to grow but their classification and naming has all been more than a little baffling. So the arrival of this fat – nay, enormous – new book from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the expert on Meconopsis, Christopher (Kit) Grey-Wilson, is very welcome.
So, first of all: 300 pages, 300 color pictures, large format (almost 12in x 10in/30cm x 25cmm), spectacularly thorough (except see below) and amazingly detailed. The photographs are superb, many of plants are seen in their wild Himalayan home which is not only a treat in itself, but also helps inform us on how to grow them. The writing is admirably lucid (as we would expect from Mr. G-W), especially considering some of the difficult botanical issues that he discusses. It’s such a relief to have all the classification and naming set out in a way we can all grasp.
But, to be clear: This is primarily a work of botany, and not a work of horticulture. Based on the latest field, herbarium and laboratory studies Kit has completely revised the classification of the whole genus, given us detailed new descriptions of all the wild forms and published many new names for the first time. Garden hybrids and garden cultivars are not usuallly discussed and even some that have received the RHS Award of Garden Merit in recent years are not mentioned. As I say, this is not a book for gardeners.
There are many striking results of all this, but two stand out. Firstly, the name Meconopsis baileyi is now, again, the correct name for what we all finally got used to calling M. betonicifolia – the blue poppy most often seen and the easiest to grow. Secondly, our old friend the lovely yellow Welsh poppy, so familiar as Meconopsis cambrica, and native not only to Wales but Ireland and parts of south west England, and naturalized all over Britain, is now Parameconopsis cambrica. (More on that another time…)
So. This a very impressive work, and the culmination of many decades of dedicated and insightful study in the field, in the herbarium and in the laboratory. It’s an amazing achievement. But, as with The Genus Erythronium that I discussed here in December, it’s expensive: $112/£68. Isn't it time these books were published as ebooks for a third (a quarter?) of the price?
Kit taught me taxonomy when I studied at Kew many decades ago and he was mad about meconopsis then. This book is the triumphant culmination of a lifetime of study. Perhaps, next, he’ll give us a book for gardeners.
The Genus Meconopsis by Christopher Grey-Wilson is published by Kew Publishing in Britain and by The University of Chicago Press in North America.