as a child visiting old country gardens of family and
friends and seeing poppies growing haphazardly among the
other flowers and landscape plants. They seemed to be
lost wandering about the place and popping up (pardon
the pun) wherever they pleased.
Poppies are the
perfect cottage garden plant as they definitely
understand the old advice of "bloom where you are
planted," or in their case, where you plant yourself!
They are less common in tidy formal gardens although
some smaller statured types are making an appearance in
more intensive landscape color rotations these days.
These jazzy cool season flowers herald the arrival
of spring with a range of colors unlike almost any other
group of flowers including deep crimson red, coral
orange, peach, bright yellow, soft pink, lavender, cream
and more in between.
Flower form ranges from
single blooms to semi double types with deeply cut
fringed petals to shaggy full bloom heads similar to
peonies. Some have crinkled petals with a crepe paper
texture. Some make good cut flowers. Even the pods can
Poppies have the interesting habit
of starting their blooms as a nodding bud. The long
slender stalks bend over like a shepherd's crook and
right before blooming lift their heads to open the
blooms toward the sky.
evidence of poppy culture back as far as 5,000 B.C. in
the Tigris and Euphrates river region in modern day
Iraq. Egyptian tombs contain poppies and the ancient
Greeks associated them with Demeter, the goddess of
fertility and agriculture. They considered the presence
of poppies around a field of grain crops a sign of the
goddess' blessing, which insured a good harvest.
Some poppy species, like many types of plants, contain
ingredients of medicinal interest. Corn poppies have
been used in sedatives and to combat coughs. But the
opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is no doubt the
most famous. This plant produces compounds from which
morphine and codeine are extracted to use in making pain
relief products. It is also the species grown in large
fields in Afghanistan where growers collect the milky
sap that exudes from cuts made in the pods to make the
narcotic opium. Opium Poppies were declared illegal in
the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942. As a result there
is considerable controversy over growing these in the
United States as garden plants.
seem to be dealing with the controversy in one of three
ways. A few still sell small quantities of seed for home
flower gardeners. Some have stopped selling the species
Papaver somniferum. Others avoid identifying the
specific species or refer to them by other common names.
The popular Thompson & Morgan seed company in
England has stopped selling this species of poppy to its
U.S. customers, although it still sells them to English
customers. This is reportedly in response to a shipment
of seeds to the U.S. that was held up and questioned by
I find the hoopla over a packet of
garden seeds to be ridiculous. While a large patch would
and certainly should bring questions and the attention
of law enforcement officials, various forms of these
flowers have been growing in gardens across the country
since colonial times. No one is likely to cuff granny
for a few poppies out along the front picket fence, nor
would granny be able to get into any narcotic mischief
with just a few plants.
The seeds from this same
species of poppy are used in cooking. While poppy seed
muffins do contain very slight amounts of narcotic
compounds, apparently enough to show up on sensitive
drug tests, you won't get high from eating your fill of
such pastries. Poppy seeds are of course still legally
sold in stores and are present on most kitchen spice
Types of Poppies
approximately 200 species of poppies grown across the
world. Here in this country the garden forms are divided
into annual and perennial types. In our hot southern
climate poppies are not able to survive as perennial
We can grow several of the annual types
quite well. Because our winters are relatively mild they
are best grown as biennials, sprouting in fall, growing
through winter and blooming in spring. I find the
following poppy species to be the easiest to grow here
in our Texas gardens.
Breadseed or Opium Poppy
These are the poppies
I recall from childhood growing here and there in
country gardens. Their foliage is a grayish blue green
and plants reach a height of 2 to 3 feet tall bearing
single or double blooms in colors ranging from deep red
to pink to lavender. Single forms with a dark spot at
the base of each petal are quite common. Also quite
popular are the large peony flowered forms sometimes
referred to as Peony Poppies and given the botanical
The blooms of these poppies last
only a short time but even when the petals are shedding
they are attractive and ornamental. I enjoy watching
bees work the flowers. Once the petals fall away, the
pods remain and dry into attractive additions to
arrangements. As the pods dry, the sides pull back,
leaving openings at the top from which the small black
seeds will pour out when overturned. These poppies are
among the best for reseeding in the garden. It is always
a surprise the next year to see where they have decided
to pop up.
Provide Bread Poppies a moderate
amount of soil moisture to keep them happy. If the
weather should turn dry during the fall to spring season
be prepared to provide a little supplemental watering.
The Iceland Poppies produce some of the brightest
colored hues in our Texas gardens. Their slender stems
sway in the breeze, announcing the arrival of spring
with a beautiful array of colors. The blooms are large,
typically single flowers in glowing shades of white,
yellow, coral orange, pink or red. Plants are typically
1 to 2 feet tall depending on variety and growing
The blooms are great for cutting,
too. Wait until the buds rise to an upright position and
just begin to open to harvest the stems. After cutting,
dip the cut ends in boiling water for a few seconds and
then into cold water or instead sear them with a flame
to seal off the cut which will bleed a milky white sap.
The cut blooms will just last a few days but are well
worth it to brighten up the indoors in early spring.
The Iceland Poppies are perhaps the most challenging
poppies on this short list but are well worth the
challenge. Many gardeners report that they are really
not that difficult at all.
Corn or Flanders
Corn poppies are
found growing wild in fields throughout Europe. During
World War I Canadian doctor John McCrae penned the well
known poem that begins, "In Flanders fields the poppies
blow, between the crosses, row on row." Those types of
corn poppies, commonly called Flanders Field Poppies,
bear bright red blooms with one or two rows of slightly
crinkly petals that somewhat resemble crepe paper. The
base of each petal bears a dark purplish black spot.
These poppies grow to a height of 2-1/2 feet. The
foliage is finely cut and rather inconspicuous, leaving
the long thin flower stalks and blooms to really show
These same poppies were brought to the
Georgetown, Texas, area by local resident Henry Compton
as he returned from the war. These Flanders poppies are
still found throughout the area, making Georgetown "The
Red Poppy Capital of Texas."
Other variations on
this species have petals in a variety of colors
including white, salmon, pink and orange. Corn poppies
are among the easiest to grow in the garden.
Shirley Poppies got their start when the Reverend W.
Wilkes, vicar of Shirley in England, discovered a
variant of the standard Papaver rhoeas growing in
his garden in the late 1800s. The blooms lacked the dark
blotch at the base and had a white edge to the petals.
He selected for various colors and characteristics
developing what we now refer to as Shirley Poppies.
Now this group of poppies includes a wide range of
colors such as pale pink, red, salmon, lavender and
rose. Plants reach a little over 2 feet tall and blooms
may be over 3 inches across.
other poppies mentioned above, California poppies are
not in the genus Papaver but rather Eschscholzia. These
poppies are quite unique in many ways. The foliage is
very finely cut and is a distinct bluish green. The 2 to
3 inch chalice-shaped blooms are usually orange but can
range in color from golden yellow to a deep orange hue.
The blooms close at night and on very cloudy days.
California poppies are easy to grow but are a bit
less hardy than some of the other popular poppies,
tolerating cold only down to about 20 degrees. The
plants reach 12 to 18 inches in height and make a
gorgeous display with the bright blooms over the dense,
finely cut foliage. These blooms are also great for
Poppies are best planted directly
out in the garden as they are not fond of being
transplanted. They germinate best at soil temperatures
in the 50s or 60s so mid fall is generally a good time
to plant them.
Select a location with full sun
although a little shade is okay as long as they get at
least 6 hours of direct sun. Build up a raised planting
bed if the area is not well drained. Most species won't
tolerate soggy soil conditions at all.