Poppies (25403 bytes)

2003: The Year of the Poppy

The National Garden Bureau Celebrates 2003 as the Year of the Poppy

Poppies deserve a place in any garden: in wildflower and meadow plantings, perennial borders, cutting gardens or mixed-shrub borders. Their flower colors range from vibrant to subdued-from deepest crimson, bright orange and yellow to soft pink, dusky peach, rose, lilac and cream. Flowers may be single, double or semidouble, with amazing texture and size. The Iceland poppy produces flowers up to seven inches across above attractive blue-green, segmented foliage. The Shirley poppy bears single or double crepe-paper-like blooms edged with white. Field, or Flanders, poppies sport single, crimson flowers, which suit wildflower plantings perfectly. The National Garden Bureau designates 2003 as the 'Year of the Poppy' because it is quite probably the most popular wildflower in America. In a border garden, poppies combine beautifully with lamb's ears, cornflowers, larkspur, Shasta daisy, and veronica. For a meadow look, you cannot go wrong with a sowing of poppies among lupine, coreopsis, Indian blanket, black-eyed Susan, and cornflower-the colors complement each other and the various plants extend the flowering season into fall. The beauty of poppy blooms is like a magnificent sunset, somewhat fleeting. Flowers appear primarily in the spring or fall when cool temperatures prevail. Poppies vary in height from 2 to 3 feet tall, although there are dwarf strains of the Iceland poppy that reach only 12 inches. The latter work well in rock gardens, in containers, and at the front edge of a border. Most poppies look good in the middle or towards the rear of perennial beds.

What's in a Name?
Many plants in a number of genera reside in the poppy family, Papaveraceae, and bear the name poppy: California poppy (Eschscholzia), blue poppy (Meconopsis), plumed poppy (Macleaya) and prickly poppy (Argemone), to name four. This fact sheet will focus on the genus Papaver, which includes most of the poppy species. The genus Papaver contains annuals and perennials. The annual poppy, P. rhoeas (pronounced row-ays), which gardeners have cultivated for centuries, goes by a variety of common names, from corn or field poppy to Flanders poppy and Shirley poppy. The "corn" of corn poppy does not, as some people assume, refer only to its habit of showing up in cornfields. Corn is Old English for seed and from korn, the Greek word for grain; the seed in this case refers to fields of grains like rye, wheat and oat. Poppy seeds may lie dormant in soil for years and germinate when the soil is disturbed, as by a plow. Flanders poppy is the single, red flower that carpeted fields in Flanders in western Europe, noticed especially during World War I. It became famous when John McCrae, a Canadian soldier, wrote a poem about it in 1917 commemorating the soldiers who had died: "In Flanders Fields, the poppies grow/Between the crosses, row on row...." The Shirley poppy also has an interesting history, which you can read about in the next section. The Iceland poppy, P. nudaucaule (new-dih-caw-lee), a perennial, isn't actually from Iceland but from Asia. It undoubtedly cross-pollinated in the wild and in gardens with a few of its closely related species, including P. radicatum, which is from Iceland. Most catalogs list the Iceland poppy as P. nudaucaule, and, no matter what species name it goes by, it is very easy to grow from seed. It is winter-hardy from Zones 2 to 8. Other poppies include the perennial Alpine poppy (P. alpinum and other diminutive species), which fit beautifully in rock gardens and the perennial Oriental poppy, P. orientale, which gardeners usually grow from root divisions not seeds.

Historical Perspective
People have grown poppies for thousands of years, as far back as 5000 BC, when cultivated in Mesopotamia near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Archaelogists have found the remains of poppies in Egyptian tombs dating back 3000 years. Myths about Greek and Roman gods mention poppies. The Greeks thought the poppy was a favorite flower of Demeter, the goddess of fertility and agriculture because she was said to wear a wreath of wheat and barley interlaced with poppies. According to myth, she also used the juice of the poppy in a concoction to cure a farmer's son when the farmer helped her in her search for her daughter Persephone. Because Demeter was responsible for good harvests,
people believed that poppies growing around a field meant a bountiful crop, hence the common name corn (grain) poppy. That belief held for centuries in many parts of the world, even though the plants often proved to be a nuisance,
interfering with harvesting. Throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa, poppies were important medicinal plants. The flowers of the corn poppy contain rhoeadine, an alkaloid used in mild sedatives. In The Complete Herbal, published in England in 1649, Nicholas Culpeper mentions the use of the flowers and seeds in medicines to guard against coughs and sore throats. The poppies grown were usually single-flowered, red, yellow or orange with dark or white blotches at the base of the petals. In the late 1800s, the Reverend W. Wilkes, vicar of Shirley in England, discovered a new form of the annual poppy growing in his garden. The flower had a narrow edge of white around each petal and no blotch. He sowed the seeds from that plant and continued to select from subsequent generations until he had a group of poppies with single, tissue-paper-like petals, no dark blotches at the base and colors ranging from pale pink to lilac and mauve, as well as red. These became known as Shirley poppies. Other gardeners over the years made selections from their plantings of Shirley poppies so that today there are double and semi-double forms and picotee flowers with lighter or darker edges. Poppies, unlike many other perennials and annuals, usually attain improved performance, colors and sizes
through selection, not hybridization. Some breeders in Europe and Australia produce F1 hybrids, but most companies in the United States offer open-pollinated varieties. English breeders are working on hybrid poppies that do not set seed, thus extending the flowering season.

Poppies at a Glance

Corn poppy Papaver rhoeas, grows 2 to 3 feet tall, blooms from late spring through summer and bears red, purple, lilac, white, salmon, peach, pink or orange flowers with a distinctive dark blotch at the base of each petal. The Shirley poppy, a selection from the species, grows to 4 feet tall; its pastel blooms lack the blotch but have a narrow white or tinted edge on each petal.

Alpine poppy P. alpinum, grows 5 to 10 inches tall, blooms from late spring to summer and bears white, yellow, or occasionally orange or red flowers. It is hardy in Zones 5 to 8.

Iceland poppy P. nudicaule, grows 1 to 2 feet tall, blooms from late spring through summer and produces orange, red, yellow, apricot, pink, salmon or white flowers. It is hardy in Zones 2 to 8.

Oriental poppy P. orientale, grows 2 to 4 feet tall, blooms from late spring to midsummer and bears scarlet, salmon, pink, peach, white or rose blooms, usually with a black blotch at the base of the petals. The foliage dies back after flowering but begins to regrow in fall. It is hardy in Zones 4 to 9.

How to Grow from Seed
Poppies grow easily from seed. Be sure to select the correct species for an annual or perennial planting. They are known for self-sowing, sometimes with abandon, and you may find seedlings popping up all around the garden bed. They are not invasive and the seedlings are easy to pull up if they land in unwanted places.

Poppies are frost tolerant and germinate best in cool weather and soil. Sow seeds as early as the ground can be worked in spring. In warm areas, Zones 7 and higher, you can sow poppies in autumn; seedlings will begin to grow early the following spring. Poppies bloom profusely under cool growing conditions. When temperatures rise poppy plants tend to bloom only sporadically. * Select a site in full sun, one that receives at least six hours of direct sun daily. In warm climates (zones), plants do best with some protective shade at midday.

  • Prepare the soil first. Poppies grow in almost any kind of soil with good drainage. Waterlogged soil, especially in winter, is one of the main reasons some perennials such as Iceland poppies fail to survive from one year to the
    next. If your soil has poor drainage, amend it by digging in a couple of inches of compost.
  • Mix the tiny poppy seeds with some sand to make even spacing easier. Sow thinly where you want the plants to grow in the bed. If you plan to make your own "wildflower mix" for a small meadow planting, add 3-4 parts sand to 1 part seed to the mix to help you keep the seeds separated and less likely to clump too close together for satisfactory germination. This also saves some of the task of thinning.
  • Do not bury the seeds. Cover them with a very thin layer of fine soil (poppies germinate best with some light) and water the area. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy, until seeds germinate. At a soil temperature of 55 degrees expect germination in 10-15 days.
  • When seedlings are about 1 inch tall, thin them to stand 6 to 10 inches apart.
  • When you grow annual poppies sow more than once during spring to extend the color season in the garden.

  • Start seeds 6 to 8 weeks before your average last spring frost.
  • Because poppies resent transplanting, sow seeds in biodegradable pots that go in the ground with the plant.
  • Moisten the germinating mix before sowing; fill 2-1/2-inch or larger pots to within 1/2-inch of the rim.
  • To avoid over seeding each container, combine some sand with the seeds, empty them onto a creased piece of paper, and gently tap them out onto the germinating mix. Sprinkle a thin layer of germinating mix or vermiculite over the surface then spritz with water to settle the seeds.
  • Cover the pots with plastic to help the mix retain moisture. When the seeds germinate in 7 to 14 days, remove the plastic.
  • Set pots in a sunny window or under fluorescent lights. When seedlings are 1 inch high, thin them to one seedling per pot. The best way to do that is to cut off the unwanted plants with a scissors because pulling the seedlings out will disturb the roots of the remaining plant.
  • Keep the mix evenly moist by watering from the bottom, not the top. Set the pots in a pan or sink filled with about an inch of water until moisture appears on the surface.

    Growing on in the Garden
  • Transplant seedlings started indoors or bought at a garden center on a cloudy, calm day. Set each plant in the ground so the crown is just even with the surface. To prevent the rims of biodegradable pots from drying out and
    wicking water from the surrounding soil, peel off the top 1 inch of the pots or simply make sure you completely cover the pots with soil.
  • Be careful about spacing. Plant far enough apart that the poppies enjoy good air circulation, avoiding the possibility of later problems with disease.
  • You do not need to provide poppies with supplemental watering unless the summer is very hot and dry, nor do you need to fertilize.
  • To keep all poppies in bloom for a longer time, deadhead spent flowers instead of allowing them to go to seed.
  • If you prefer a very neat look in the garden, support taller varieties against wind and strong rain. Use commercial supports or branched twigs from your spring pruning of shrubs and trees.
  • In areas where winters tend to be very wet, Icelandic poppies may not survive. They are so easy to grow from seed, however, that many gardeners treat them as annuals.

    Purchasing Poppies at a Garden Center
    Even though annual and Iceland poppies grow easily from seed you sow yourself, you can purchase started plants at garden centers and nurseries, where you are also likely to find the perennial oriental group. Look for young plants with a number of flower stems and unopened buds. Examine the plants carefully. Pass up any with yellowed leaves, which can indicate over-watering and potential root rot. Check the crown of the plant where the foliage joins the roots; if it looks "mushy," avoid the plant because that is another indication of over-watering or poor drainage. Plant your purchases as soon as you get them home. If that is not possible, set the pots in a protected spot, out of direct sun. Try to hold them no longer than a couple of days.

    Poppies in Containers
    Poppies grow well in containers, partly because they are drought tolerant. They add an airy aspect to pots, which gardeners usually pack with plants for eye-catching designs. Use them sparingly so they act as accents rather than focal points. Select large containers with drainage holes in the bottom or sides to prevent waterlogged soil. Fill the pot with a packaged potting mix, not garden soil. Garden soil, in addition to containing weed seeds, becomes very heavy when wet. You can sow seeds directly in the planter, but it is easier to arrange your design if you use transplants. Set the potted poppies and other plants on top of the soil before unpotting; rearrange them until the design suits you. Because many of the plants will not be mature or in flower when you do this, your imagination will need to fill in colors as well as the ultimate heights and spreads of your selections. Unpot the plants and set them in the container at the same level they were growing originally. Try to disturb the roots of the poppies as little as possible. Water the planting well. Water the containers as needed. In hot summer weather you may find yourself watering every day, depending on the plants you combine. Deadhead spent blooms on all
    plants to keep the plants producing new flowers and to keep the planting attractive.

    Care for Cut Flowers
    Poppies, especially the Iceland poppies add a lovely delicate-looking appearance to flower arrangements even if they last only two to three days. Cut the blooms when the buds are standing upright and show a bit of color-just
    before the petals are ready to open out. (It's fun to watch the buds unfurl right before your eyes.) You may need a few tries before you get the timing right. When cut, the stems exude a milky sap, or latex, which can cause skin
    irritation if you happen to be allergic, so avoid touching it just to be safe. To make the flowers last longer seal the cut ends by plunging them for a few seconds in hot or boiling water, or singe the ends with a match or candle
    flame. Put the stems immediately in cold water then combine them with your other plant material. If, in spite of your best efforts, the stems begin to flop over, prop them up by setting them next to sturdier flowers that can act
    as supports.

    Pests and Diseases
    Poppies are seldom bothered by pests or diseases. Their resistance to pests or diseases is advantageous because they often react adversely to sprays. The best solution is prevention. Space plants so they have good air circulation. Do not over water. Plant them in soil with good drainage. Aphids may attack young plants in bud. Wash them off with a hard spray of water from the garden hose or, in severe cases, use an insecticidal soap spray. Four-legged creatures such as ground hogs may find the plants tasty. The only protection against them is a
    humane trap that allows you to capture and transport the animals elsewhere. Downy mildew, a fungus, can be a problem for young plants. Its symptoms include yellow blotches on the upper sides of leaves with a gray mold on the undersides. Because of their sensitivity to sprays, chemical or otherwise, your best cure is prevention, as noted above.

    Self-perpetuating Poppies
    One can never get enough of some flowers, and poppies definitely belong in that category. Luckily they satisfy the desire for more. In most regions of the country, once you plant a poppy you find its number increasing from year to year. The seed is so fine that the slightest breeze can carry it from one part of the garden to another...and another. The divided leaves and lovely blooms appear as welcome surprises each spring.

    Information and Photograph courtesy of National Garden Bureau.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010