On Friday I went for a short walk along the local coastline to see what I could find. Starting from the coastguard station at Hall Road, I walked north along the Sefton Coastal footpath towards Hightown shingle beach at the mouth of the River Alt. I was delighted to find some Yellow Horned Poppy, Glaucium flavum, a plant which I had never seen before.
This shingle beach at Hightown is formed almost entirely of house bricks and other rubble that has eroded from the coast-protection embankment. At its northern end, close to the mouth of the river the erosion is less severe and this has allowed the shingle to be colonised by a variety of plants.
The Yellow Horned Poppy is a member of the Papavaraceae family and so is related to the Red Poppy but it is also related to the Greater Celandine. The plant grows on the seashore and is never found inland.
It has spreading, branching stems and thick blue-green leaves. The plant can attain a height of 50 cm and the bright yellow flowers are 7.5 to 10 cm wide. The two concave sepals that protect the bud are thrown off when the flower opens and the four petals form two pairs, one larger than the other.
There are numerous bright orange stamens, but the distinguishing feature is the ovary which after fertilisation develops into a long two-valved pod sometimes growing to a length of 25 cm. This pod can resemble a horn, hence the common name of the plant, Yellow Horned Poppy.
All parts of the plant are poisonous and contain the alkaloid Glaucine.
The plant has been known to herbalists for centuries and was described by the 16th century herbalist John Gerrard thus
“The Yellow Horned Poppy hath whitish leaves very much cur or jagged, somewhat like the leaves of garden Poppie, but rougher and more hairie. The stalks be long, round and brittle. The floures be large and yellow, consisting of foure leaves, which being past, there come long huskes or cods,crooked like an horn or cornet.”
In the 17th century Nicholas Culpeper wrote of the medicinal virtues of the plant in his famous Herbal.
“Virtues. Like its species, it is under the Sun in Leo; and is aperitive and cleansing, opening obstructions of the spleen and liver, and of great use in curing the jaundice and scurvy; some reckon is cordial. and a good antidote against the plague. Outwardly it is used for sore eyes, to dry up the rheum and take away specks and films, as also against tetters and ringworms.”
Nowadays it is still used as a antitussive in some countries but it is a powerful psychoactive drug and best avoided. In the UK it is a protected species and should not be picked.
I counted about 10 specimens on the beach and a couple alongside the path. This is an improvement on last year when according to reports none were seen. it was thought that the storm surges in the winter of 2013/14 had wiped the colony out.
Robert Bridges wrote a poem about the poppy
A poppy grows upon the shore,
Bursts her twin cups in summer late:
Her leaves are glaucus-green and hoar
Her petals yellow, delicate.
She has no lovers like the red,
That dances in the noble corn:
Her blossoms on the waves are shed,
Where she stands shivering and forlorn.
For some reason this made me think about the Iron Men standing on Crosby beach endlessly staring out to sea.