remember 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 be ornamental.
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.
There is 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.
Seed companies 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 officials.
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 racks.
Types of Poppies
There are 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 plants.
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 name Papaver paeoniflorum.
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 conditions.
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 Poppy
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 off.
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.
Unlike the 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 pressing.
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.
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