A Close-up View of the
"Icelandic (Arctic) Poppy"

Papaver nudicaule

by Brian Johnston   (Canada)

The Icelandic poppy, or arctic poppy as it is sometimes called, is native to northern Europe and North America, where it is abundant even in arctic regions with their brief summers.  The plant is distinguished by its large crinkled, tissue-paper-like flowers which are held aloft by strong, extremely hairy, curved stems.  Wildflowers tend to be white, yellow or orange in colour, while cultivars have been developed in shades of salmon, rose, pink, cream, and bi-colour.

The subject of this article is the cultivar Papaver nudicaule ‘Champagne Bubbles’ which grows to fifty centimetres in height, and whose blooms can be up to fifteen centimetres in diameter.

Papaver, (the Greek noun for the word poppy), is the genus which includes all poppies.  Poppies belong to the poppy family (Papaveraceae) which contains approximately one hundred and twenty species.  The best known species is probably the infamous ‘opium poppy’ Papaver somniferum.  The milky sap of this plant’s unripe seed pods is the source of opium, and indirectly, the drugs morphine, codeine and heroin.

Many plants have buds in which the enclosed petals are neatly packed.  This is most definitely not the case with the arctic poppy!  The extremely crinkled appearance of the fully open blooms (below) is due to the fact that the petals have been packed in a totally disorganized fashion within the bud, an example of which can be seen above.  This crinkled appearance is however, not a detriment, but an attractive and interesting trait.

Early buds have the appearance of two partially merged, hairy spheres, held aloft by an equally hairy, strong, straight, cylindrical stem.

Over a period of several days to a week, the bud becomes ellipsoidal in shape, and in many cases, the stem bends to position the top of the bud in a horizontal, or downward pointing orientation.  In fact, the bud appears to follow the sun’s position, which sometimes results in the stem having several complicated curves!

A day or two before blooming, the bud begins to split longitudinally, and finally the colour of the bloom is revealed - in this case orange.  Strangely, the bud always splits in only one location.  I have not seen any multiple glimpses of the underlying petals on a bud.

The outer covering is composed of two intensely hairy sepals (modified leaves), which protect the tissue paper thin petals as they grow.

Much higher magnification images of the other side of the previous bud can be seen below.  Each hair’s base is almost black, while the tip is light brown or beige in colour.  Both images show the groove that separates the two sepals.

As the two sepals get closer to separating, they lose their green colour and appear light brown.  The process is almost complete in the bud shown below.

The arctic poppy’s strange bud certainly deserves a few more images.  As the flower blooms, the two sepals fall away from its base.

The moment of blooming is shown below.  About thirty minutes earlier, the two sepals had detached from the base of the bud.

About an hour later, the petals have begun to open.

Front and back views of the flower whose bud was shown previously, can be seen below.  The left image shows the reproductive structures that will be discussed later, while the right image shows the point of connection of flower to stem.

To say that the poppy’s stem is hairy would be an understatement!  It is commonly believed that hairy stems and other flower parts, taste strange to predators, and discourage their being eaten!

The flower’s reproductive structures are striking.  Several rings of stamens, which consist of yellow anthers supported by yellowish white filaments, surround the prominent central pistil.  The pistil is topped by a bright yellow, kaleidoscopic-looking stigma, connected by a very short style, to a large bulbous ovary.  This ovary is interesting in that it has many prominent black hairs growing on its surface.  (Strangely, the yellow variation of the flower has many fewer of these black hairs.)

Better views of the stigma and ovary can be seen below.  At the magnifications shown, it is possible to see the tiny, yellow hair-like protuberances that grow out from the stigma’s fringes.

Two views follow that show the flower’s anthers.  Notice in the higher magnification right-hand image, that the pollen is not distributed evenly over the surface of the anther.  Also notice how narrow is the diameter of the filament just beneath each anther.

The pot of arctic poppy plants which was used to obtain images for this article, contains both orange and yellow blooms.  For comparison, here is what the yellow flowers look like.  Other than the colour, the only apparent difference is the number of black hairs growing from the ovary.

Note the appearance of the flower’s petals in the image below.

Under the microscope, the oval cells which make up the structure of a petal can be seen.   The veins which traverse each petal are lighter in colour.  (‘Auto-levels’ was used in Photoshop to increase contrast in the two photomicrographs.)

Two additional photomicrographs follow that show the curled edge of a petal (left), and a blemish on the petal’s surface (right).

The reproductive structures of the yellow flower are, as expected, similar to those of the flower shown earlier.

The anthers are roughly oval in shape.

Under the microscope, the thin white strand that connects anther to filament is clearly visible.  Both anther and filament have many pollen grains clinging to their surfaces.

Higher magnification photomicrographs reveal that the pollen of the arctic poppy is extremely variable in shape.  (Phase-contrast illumination is used in the image on the right.)

The flower’s stigma has seven distinct lobes radiating from its centre.  Notice how few black hairs grow from the ovary positioned beneath the stigma.

Under the microscope, the many hair-like protuberances on the stigma’s surface, that help collect pollen grains, are resolved.

Higher magnification shows several of these protuberances, and the almost spherical pollen grains that cling to their surfaces.

Even the ovary (seen at low magnification below), has a coating of pollen grains.

If the ovary is cut open, many egg-shaped fruit can be seen developing inside.  Notice the unusual tile-like pattern on each fruit’s surface!

It is not always the flowers of a plant that pique my interest.  In the case of the arctic poppy, I consider the buds and leaves to be far more photogenic than the flowers.  (There is no accounting for taste!)  Look at the leaf shown below, in front and back views.  Is this not a thing of beauty, with its multiple lobes, and covering of starkly white hairs?? 

One of these hairs, growing out from the edge of a leaf, can be seen in the two images that follow.  Note the short projections that grow from the hair’s surface.

Similar hairs grow on the flat surface of a leaf.

Two higher magnification images follow, showing the cells composing the base of a hair (left), and those forming the leaf’s veins (right).

Macro-photography allows the observer to obtain views of flowering plants that are difficult to see with the naked eye.  These close-up views enable a much greater appreciation of the beauty, and complexity of the flora that surround us.  Expensive photographic equipment is not necessary to see the details - a magnifying glass, reversed microscope eyepiece, or camera lens, held to the eye will do just as well.  Why not take a moment, and have a closer look at the botanical world that surrounds you!

Photographic Equipment

The macro-photographs were taken with an eight megapixel Canon 20D DSLR equipped with a Canon EF 100 mm f 2.8 Macro lens which focuses to 1:1.  A Canon 250D achromatic close-up lens was used to obtain higher magnifications in several images.

The photomicrographs were taken with a Leitz SM-Pol microscope (using dark ground and phase-contrast condensers), and the Coolpix 4500.

 All comments to the author Brian Johnston are welcomed.

Microscopy UK Front Page
Micscape Magazine
Article Library

© Microscopy UK or their contributors.

Published in the March 2008 edition of Micscape.
Please report any Web problems or offer general comments to the Micscape Editor.
Micscape is the on-line monthly magazine of the Microscopy UK web
site at Microscopy-UK  

© Onview.net Ltd, Microscopy-UK, and all contributors 1995 onwards. All rights reserved. Main site is at www.microscopy-uk.org.uk with full mirror at www.microscopy-uk.net .