A Profusion of Poppies

Poppies are among the most enchanting blooms of the plant kingdom. Learn about the extensive poppy family of Papaveraceae and how to care for them.

Credit: John Glover

Poppies are among the most enchanting blooms of the plant kingdom

Papaveraceae, the extensive poppy family, is made up of 26 genera and some 200 species, the best known among gardeners being the annual and perennial forms of Papaver.

Shirley poppies

As a child, the first poppies I ever grew in my own garden were Shirley poppies, an old cultivar of Papaver rhoeas. And to this very day, I still find room for a pot of them on my balcony. The wild red form of this species comes to us from Europe, and in my youth I remember coming across ripening fields of wheat dotted with these bright-red blooms. In more recent years I have been fortunate to visit Greece, where olive groves provide a home for great drifts of this poppy throughout the month of April. In our more temperate B.C. climate, Shirley poppies make good summer annuals that like to be sown directly into the ground in mid April when the soil warms up. A good tip is to prepare the site by digging it over, then let the first crop of annual weeds germinate. Hoe these off, then sow the poppies. Shirleys also work very well to fill spaces in the perennial border, as they tend to mature and bloom prior to the great flush of later summer perennials. These lovely annuals reach about 30 centimetres at maturity, with each plant producing a solitary bowl-shaped flower. Their stems are thin and hairy, as are their narrow lobed leaves. Shirley poppies will self-seed if you have well-drained sandy soil, often germinating in a gravel path or along the side of a driveway. But be sure to save the seed annually to ensure a good show. The Shirleys were introduced by the Vicar of the small parish of Shirley in England, back in 1888. In a meadow near his garden, he noticed a poppy that had petals edged with white. He collected the seed, and over the next few years, hybridized the progeny until he had produced the beautiful pink and white shades we grow today. These poppies also have yellow centres, as opposed to the black of the wild ones. Over the years there have been further introductions, including ‘Fairy Wings’ and ‘Mother of Pearl.’ Both have very delicate shadings of pink so ethereal that when in bloom in a border they almost float like butterflies.

Opium poppy

Another fairly well-known annual poppy, Papaver somniferum, or the opium poppy, was traditionally grown in cottage gardens, where it simply volunteered, since poppy seed was always included in wild bird seed mix. Gardening dictionaries state that its origin is unknown, as it has occurred all over the globe since plant records were kept. However, there is a lovely myth from the Himalaya that says these poppies grew where Buddha’s eyelashes hit the ground. This strong-growing annual is quite eye-catching, reaching 60 centimetres at maturity. Its foliage is deeply lobed and a lovely blue-green colour. Its solitary flowers are also bowl-shaped and range in colour from pure white to red, with magnificent magenta shades in between. Of course, this plant has received a lot of bad press because of the illicit drug derived from it. But we would need acreages in the foothills of the Himalayas to produce any great quantity of opium, and really it makes a very lovely garden plant. On the other hand, it should be noted how important opium is in the field of medicine. Properly distilled, it produces the invaluable pain-killer morphine. And this poppy has a more mundane function as well; its seed is used in cooking to flavour delicious poppy seed cakes, muffins and bagels. Recent cultivars of this plant include a red and white form called ‘Danish Flag,’ which has deeply serrated edges. And you’ll also want to keep your eye out for several double-flowered forms known as carnation poppies. As with the other poppies I’ve mentioned, it is a good idea to save some seed each year to ensure a good show.

Oriental poppy

When it comes to perennial poppies there is no match for the jewel of the border, the oriental poppy (Papaver orientale). Native to the Caucasus, northeastern Turkey and northern Iran, these showy plants are a must-have. A clump-forming perennial with strong, green, lobed, hairy basal foliage up to 30 centimetres in length, it has erect flower stems reaching 45 to 90 centimetres in height. These stems are covered with hairs and support a single flower consisting of four to six petals. Each flower reaches 15 to 20 centimetres across, and the petals have a black blotch at the base, while the centre of the flower is completely black. The oriental poppy’s flower buds are protected by two to three sepals that pop open, releasing delicate tissue paper-like petals. As a boy I used to watch this unfolding in awe. You may want to pause and do the same – it truly is an amazing sight. Fellow GardenWise scribe Des Kennedy and his partner Sandy have many poppies in their magical garden on Denman Island. During his informative and delightfully humorous lectures, he often refers to oriental poppies as “the holes in a border.” Just when they are on the verge of blooming, Des observes, they are usually struck by summer winds and rain and the whole plant collapses with its stems and buds lying flat on the ground in a circle! It is possible to prevent this disaster by saving some twiggy leafless branches during winter pruning. These branches should be 60 centimetres long or better. As the new poppy foliage appears in spring, push the branches into the ground all around the clump so that it resembles a dense bush. As the poppy grows, its foliage and buds will grow up through the branches, allowing the branches to provide a strong support while remaining hidden.

Perennial poppies

Perennial poppies prefer a heavier well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter added at the time of planting. They also respond well to an annual springtime top dressing of well-rotted manure or compost. At the UBC Botanical Garden we used to have a wonderful dark-red one called ‘Flanders Red,’ and one of my favourites is ‘Mrs. Perry,’ the pink poppy named for the mother-in–law of my mentor, Frances Perry. ‘Patty’s Plum’ was the hot one to have last year, but all are worth garden space. For drama, you may want to consider growing bright-red ‘Warlord,’ or for a softer effect, try pretty pink ‘Springtime’ or ‘Helen Elizabeth.’ One last little comment on these wonderful perennials. When my colleague Judy Newton started working at the Garden, she often had a vase of cut oriental poppies on her desk. I was mystified, as they do not make good cut flowers. Her secret was to take matches with her into the garden. As she cut each poppy, she lightly burned the bottom of its stem before putting it in water. It works like a charm.

Iceland poppy

Perhaps the poppy I associate most with my coming to Canada is the Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule). Having spent two summers as head gardener at Chateau Lake Louise, I became very familiar with these gems. They love the climate at that altitude and are hardy in zones 2 to 8, making them perfect candidates for northern B.C. gardens. As biennials they are best sown in a seed bed or spare patch in the vegetable garden in May so that they are ready to plant in the flowerbed to bloom the following season. Even when not in bloom, the Iceland poppy has charming pinnatifid glaucous leaves covered with darkish hairs, and the nodding flower buds borne on 30-centimetre hairy stems open up to gorgeous blooms, 10 to 15 centimetres across, ranging in colour from pure white through apricot-orange.

Himalayan blue poppy

There are so many other members of the poppy family I could discuss, but perhaps I’ll limit myself to just two more! The first is Meconopsis betonicifolia, the amazing Himalayan blue poppy. As a youth, I first saw blue poppies at the Saville garden in Windsor Great Park and couldn’t believe my eyes. Of course, I now live in an area where blue poppies love the climate – both UBC Botanical Garden and VanDusen have good collections of this genus. As the name suggests, this plant comes from the slopes of the roof of the world, and it likes woodland soil in partial shade. A sometimes short-lived perennial, it has a rosette of bluish-green ovate basal foliage 15 to 30 centimetres in length. It is slightly hairy and its flower stems usually carry one to six flower buds and reach up to a metre in height. The secret to maintaining the intense sky-blue colour is to hand-pollinate the bluest with the blue flowers. Some years ago we had a grad student working on this species and her seedlings were always a good strong colour. Starting the seed can be tricky for some, but the secret seems to be to sow fresh seed almost immediately in a good slug-proof seed frame.

Matilija poppy

And my last poppy choice for this article has to be the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri). Native to the chaparral in California and New Mexico, this amazing perennial tree poppy is almost as difficult to get going as the blue poppy. It loves well-drained poor soil, and once established, can become quite weedy. I once gave a talk on Galiano Island, and during question time a woman asked me how she could eradicate this plant. I suggested she give me her house! The Matilija poppy is a sub-shrubby perennial reaching two metres in height. Its leaves are alternately glaucous and slightly pinnate. Its solitary white flower smells sweet and looks like a giant poached egg (20 to 30 centimetres across), with its six pure white petals and bright-yellow centre. As I noted earlier, this is a tricky one to start. Root cuttings in sand will work, and fresh seed, if it’s sown, then covered with dry straw that is then set alight. This latter method should be effective as the Matilija poppy is one of those plants that will germinate after a bush fire. This has been no more than a mere introduction to the wonderful wide world of poppies. To learn more, read Poppies: A Guide to the Poppy Family in the Wild and in Cultivation by Christopher Grey-Wilson, published by Timber Press. The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia) – zone 7 • Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule) – zone 2 • Matilija (Romneya coulteri) – zone 7 • Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) – zone 4 David Tarrant of the UBC Botanical garden is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Canadian Gardener on CBC television.