I have been reading about European poppies in the book Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, so Mats Ellting’s recently-posted photo of Parameconopsis cambrica caught my attention. Although the book doesn’t cover Welsh poppy specifically (the examples given are all in the genus Papaver, but more about that below), it shares many characteristics with the poppies that do get included, such as plentiful seeds that persist in the soil for a surprisingly long time.
Well over 250 years ago, Linnaeus observed that Welsh poppy was similar to the other members of the Papaver species found throughout Europe, and he named Welsh poppy Papaver cambricum. In 1814, Viguer renamed the species Meconopsis cambricum, founding the genus Meconopsis on the basis that its members have a distinct style, rather than a disc-shaped stigma that lacks a style and instead attaches directly to the ovary. Since then, all poppies with styles have been labelled as Meconopsis. The genus has grown to include about 50 accepted species.
Gardeners have always noticed that Welsh poppy is the black sheep of the Meconopsis (or, the yellow sheep, I suppose). The large, Himalayan blue poppies, such as Meconopsis baileyi, are quite challenging to grow whereas Welsh poppies grow under most conditions and even tend to become weedy. Most members of Meconopsis are monocarpic, that is, they die once setting seed, while Welsh poppies perennially produce fruit. All of the Meconopsis come from Asia, while the Welsh poppy is from Europe. Recently, genetic studies proved that Linnaeus (and all of those gardeners) were onto something all along. A study published in the New Journal of Botany asserted that other members of the Meconopsis evolved styles independently of the Welsh poppy, and that its closest relatives lie in the genus Papaver.
Changing Meconopsis cambrica to better reflect its uniqueness, however, was easier said than done. Since it was the founding member of its genus, the Welsh poppy should technically retain the genus name Meconopsis, and all other members of the genus should be moved elsewhere. This proved problematic, as Meconopsis is a well-known genus and many of its members are celebrated horticulturally. Changing all of these species into a new genus would be disruptive and costly to many people. A more palatable solution was proposed by Christopher Grey-Wilson, who suggested the name Meconopsis be retained for all of the Asiatic species, and that a new generic name be created for the Welsh poppy, Parameconopsis cambrica. A full account of Grey-Wilson’s reasoning can be found in his beautiful and informative book, The Genus Meconopsis: Blue Poppies and their Relatives (2014).