Colourful and elegant, poppies are loved by all
Everyone can recognise a poppy, even if it is not always a papaver but a related genus such as meconopsis. The four-petalled flowers, ring of stamens and typical ‘pepperpot’ seed heads are unlike any other flower. The 70 or so species include perennials, biennials and annuals. The magnificent Oriental poppies are staples of the herbaceous border and there are lots of alpines too. Among the annuals, the most popular and widely grown are the opium poppy (P. somniferum) and the common field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) but the ladybird poppy (P. commutatum – above) is also popular.
The opium poppy (above) is the one that most people enthuse over, largely because of their large bloom, often fully double and very frilly. The colour of the wild species is lavender mauve but varieties vary from scarlet to purple, pink, white and the deepest purple-black. Robinson wrote ‘An annual stately and showy with large flowers the foliage gray-green, flowers variable in form and colour, rank in smell and useless for cutting but of good effect when grouped boldly.’
I confess that I have yet to be seduced by the opium poppy. It is a rather coarse plant and though the large, blue-green leaves are attractive and the plants bold, growing to 1m high in rich soil, the flowers are fleeting and there are not that many on each plant. Deadheading will prolong the flowering season but you will only get a month of flowers on a plant. And although the first, terminal flowers are huge, later flowers get increasingly smaller. Of course, flowers are not everything and the large seedpods, which are, in the kinds that are full of alkaloids, the source of opium, are attractive too. The kinds that are grown in gardens are not, mercifully, rich in opium and the breadseed poppy is the same species.
It is a hardy annual and can be sown where it is to bloom. If sown in autumn the seedlings will overwinter and bloom the next year. It often selfseeds freely, the pepperpot seed pods scattering seeds in the wind.
Plants unfortunately die rather unattractively, the large leaves turn straw yellow and plants look pretty shabby very quickly.
The wild field poppy (above) was turned into a popular garden plant by the Reverend Wilks in Shirley, Surrey, UK who, in the 1880s, selected pastel shades among the brilliant reds and created the series that bears the name of his home. They are bicolors and pastel shades and single or semi-double and do not have the typical black blotch at the base. From this have been made many other strains which feature grey shades and full doubles. Like all poppies, the buds are nodding and protected by two sepal that split to reveal the crumpled petals that quickly expand. The flowers do not have much nectar but bees love collecting the copious pollen.
There is a fragility to the flowers that is charming but the plants are tough and the field poppy is hardy and can be sown in spring or autumn. Plants do not transplant well so are best sown where they are to grow. They can be sown in cell trays but be sure to plant them out when young and before they are stressed into blooming.
The most exciting poppy, for many people, is the ladybird poppy and it is certainly very bright and distinctive. It is easy to grow from seed, bushy and flowers for a good time, especially if deadheaded, at least at the start of the flowering period – no one has time to keep up deadheading poppies for long! When I frequented flower shows a lot, this was a plant that was often sold as plants in bloom, usually grown in small pots and at the end of its life cycle. It was not good practice and I wonder how many people realised it was just an annual. The good news was that at least it was likely to self seed and reappear the next year.
All poppies should be sown with a minimal covering of compost because the seeds need light to germinate. The field (or Flanders) poppy was chosen to commemorate the First World war because poppies appeared in the fields where seeds, that had long been dormant in the soil, were brought to the surface during the conflict in Belgium.
Annual poppies are traditionally cornfield weeds, thriving where the soil is cultivated and although perfect for annual meadow wildflower plantings will not survive in a perennial wildflower meadow where they will not compete with perennial plants including grass.