The Tallest Poppy

Feb 24, 2016 | Love This!

I am a fan of John Sandford‘s novels, and am currently reading Rough Country (A Virgil Flowers Novel) . In this book Weather Davenport says, “Well, somebody’s got to be the tall poppy.” and Virgil Flowers, the protagonist in the book, has to look the saying up online.

So did I.

It seems (definition gleaned from Wickipedia) that this is a term for when people who have distinguished themselves are attacked or resented by others because they’ve excelled. Apparently there’s a similar saying in Asian cultures: “The nail that stands out gets hammered down.”

In the garden, a plant that grows taller might prevent sunlight from reaching surrounding growth. Plants can’t move around, after all, so how a single plant develops might influence how other plants in the immediate area can grow. Usually in plant communities the various species find their own niche; although a tall plant might shade the smaller ones, those growing underneath are well suited for thriving in less light. So in the plant world those that thrive exceptionally aren’t usually attacked or hammered down by others whose green color comes from envy instead of photosynthesis.

This reference to tall poppies in Rough Country resonated with me today on a couple of counts. First, because as I sorted through my photos on a plane ride yesterday my attention was captured by a photo of one of my oriental poppies. I was reminded that in a few short months I will be savoring those flamboyant blooms again.

I was returning from speaking at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle, and while there I had the pleasure of once again connecting with many garden communicators. There were other speakers and writers there who are also members of GWA, an organization of people at all levels and areas of garden communications. Once again I felt blessed to be a part of such a supportive group of horticultural professionals.

This post is a declaration of appreciation for belonging to a group of people who not only celebrate “the tall poppy,” but are also generously helping others to cultivate new heights.

These oriental poppies are among the most outrageous of flowers. I imagine that I hear them calling to each other, "Let's put on lipstick and go OUT!"

These oriental poppies are among the most outrageous of flowers. I imagine that I hear them calling to each other, “Let’s put on lipstick and go OUT!”

Every human feels occasional flashes of jealousy…but that doesn’t have to kill our appreciation for excellence or our resolve to nurture growth, in ourselves and others.




  1. Anita Fox

    I also am a fan of John Sandford’s, but I came across ‘the tallest poppy’ fifty years ago in a Manning-Coles WWII spy novel, “The Fifth Man”. And for many years I lived in Georgetown Texas, a town that hosts a “Red Poppy Festival” every year. The connection is that Colonel House, Woodrow Wilson’s top aide during WW I was a native of Williamson County, Texas and brought the poppy idea back from Flanders Fields. The first year I planted poppy seeds, as did everyone else in town, but after that, they simply ‘volunteered along with my other wildflowers. A gorgeous sight!

    • CL Fornari

      What a lovely comment, Anita! I also grow the annual red “corn poppy” and they self seed for me every year. They are a delight in the early summer, aren’t they? Thanks for adding to my experience of “the tallest poppy.”


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