In the Garden:
New England
October, 2006
Regional Report

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An oriental poppy is a masterpiece of color and design, with its characteristic dark brush strokes at the base of the petals.

Wild for Poppies

Few flowers carry the symbolic baggage of a poppy. The ancient Greeks believed poppies brought good luck to the harvest, calling them corn or grain poppies. When they grew adjacent to a field, they were a portent for a good crop. During World War I, drifts of red poppies spreading across the battlefields in Flanders in Western Europe seemed an apt symbol for the bloodshed and gave rise to the nickname, Flanders poppies. In modern-day Afghanistan, Mexico, and numerous other countries that traffic in heroin, the breadseed or opium poppy represents a cash crop, worthy of defending to the death.

To us gardeners, poppies are simply elegant flowers, with their fuzzy, nodding buds; crepe paper petals; and distinctive seedpods. Many different plants go by the name "poppy" -- some perennial and some annual -- so in the interest of clearing things up a bit, and since fall is a good time to sow seeds of some of them, let's talk poppies.

Perennial
Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) have been immortalized in Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of oversized flowers that seem to pull us inside the petals. No wonder they captivated her, with their brilliant blooms of red, peach, pink, rose, and white, often with a distinctive splash of black at the base of the petals. Even in real life, the plants seem oversized -- reaching 4 feet tall with flowers 6 inches across.

They are typically put in as nursery plants in spring. After flowering, the foliage dies back and then starts to grow again in the cool days of fall, so pair them with other plants that will fill in the holes during midsummer.

Annuals/Short-Lived Perennials
The poppy that sent Dorothy into drug-induced slumber in the Land of Oz was Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, with flowers of red, white, or pink, and shades in between. Unfortunately this species is listed as a controlled substance in the U.S. (Opium is made from the unripe fruits; the seeds contain none of the narcotic, but if you eat enough of them -- say, in muffins or bread -- you might test positive for opiates.) Gardeners take their chances growing this species, especially a large patch of them, and especially if they let the seedpods mature. Perhaps if we cut off all the flowers when they fade to eliminate any suspicious seedpods ...

Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule), as the name suggests, hail from subarctic regions so they strut their stuff in our climate. The typical flower colors are yellow, orange, and white. These grow about 1 to 2 feet tall and are easy to start from seed sown in fall.

The deep red corn poppy or Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas) -- beautiful in its own rite -- is also the origin of the wonderful Shirley poppy (named after Shirley, a town in England where the new form was discovered by a vicar), which blooms in a myriad of antique shades for many weeks. The flowers lack the dark base of the Orientals, and the foliage is more inconspicuous than on some other types. They grow 2 to 2-1/2 feet tall and can be started from seed in fall.

Alpine poppies (Papaver alpinus), with white, yellow, orange, and pink flowers on 6-inch-tall plants, are perfect for rock gardens with a sandy-ish soil. They are slow to grow from seed, so you might want to purchase plants.

Using the Term Loosely
Now we come to two poppies that are not "true" poppies of the genus Papaver. The orange California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) has a very different form than the other annual poppies, growing only 18 inches high. It's not hardy in New England, but it reseeds prolifically and can become a nuisance. It grows best in sandy soil.

Blue poppies or Himalayan poppies (Meconopsis betonicifolia) are to die for. I only wish they would reseed with abandon in my garden. They are so finicky that I could devote an entire column to growing them. Southern New Englanders would be especially lucky to successfully grow a plant that prefers the growing conditions of Tibet -- cool, moist summers with good snow covering in winter and early spring, and well-drained, acidic soil. They also need partial shade and a sheltered location.

Keeping Them Happy
Poppies put on a big show in early to midsummer and then they go dormant, so give them a place where they can shine before other perennials grow large enough to fill in the space. Sow the seeds on well-drained soil and barely cover them with fine soil because they need light to germinate. The seed is so tiny that sowing is easier if you mix it with some sand. Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate. Then thin them to about 6 to 10 inches apart.

Annual poppies may live for more than one season in our region, but most likely they will return as new seedlings from seed scattered by nature. This gives us license to pull up some of the plants once they are finished blooming if they look too scraggly. Just make sure to leave a couple to go to seed for next year's blooms. To me, the seed heads are as worthy as the flowers, so I plant them where other perennials will hide the foliage as it declines. Since poppies don't like wet feet, give them well-drained soil in full sun. They don't need fertilizer or manure.

In the Wizard of Oz, a field of poppies lured Dorothy into drugged slumber. I could be overcome, too, by the allure of a field of these beauties.


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