The promise of poppies

A primer on the common varieties of this favourite garden flower

The Icelandic poppy Papaver nudicale standing tall.

Let’s talk poppies. They have just come into bloom and are both exasperatingly abundant and tricky to grow from seed. But before I get to the cultivation requirements, let’s start with a primer on some common varieties.

The most famous poppy is the Flanders field poppy, Papaver rhoeas, which is a bright scarlet, single-petalled species suited to growing in disturbed soil, hence its appearance after the First World War. Also called corn poppy, this is a European agricultural weed, but still stunning singly or en masse. Like all poppies, the bloom period of the plant is short but arresting in its intensity – hence the decision at the Tower of London to do a sensational display of ‘blood red’ ceramic rhoeas flowing forth from the castle, symbolizing all the lives lost by Britain in the Great War.

The seed of many poppies can lie dormant until the conditions are right for growth: temperatures of about 16 Celsius, ample sun and lean soil. (Seed dormancy is a strategy many weeds use to survive. I recently learned that mullein seed is viable for 100 years, so if you are still yanking out a plant you swore you eradicated ages ago, accept that many may outlive you).

The opium poppy Papaver somniferum is now naturalized in many parts of the world, including my garden where it is a welcome early summer filler, offering glaucous lettuce-like leaves and delicate mauve pompon flowers, followed by architectural seed heads in July. This is the same poppy which gives us poppy seeds for baking and interestingly also codeine, morphine and opium.

The drugs are produced from the poppy sap (the famous ‘poppy tears’), but the seeds contain few active compounds. Still, opium poppy was banned from production in the US and Canada, and I believe it still may be illegal to grow it (for drug production, not seed). If you’re looking for a good ‘breadseed’ poppy variety (there are lovely reds and purples marked with maroon available), try a heritage seed company from the prairies; Eastern European immigrants thankfully held on to old varieties.

The California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, the shocking orange poppy of rock outcroppings and highway verges is drought tolerant.

Welsh poppies (which are perennial) are clear yellow and darling, popping up in shady damp corners in May and June. They are actually not a Papaver, but a Meconopsis – of blue poppy fame – and the species cambrica. I encourage them by shaking the seed heads when they form: really that’s all one needs to do, and if you find you have too many, are easily yanked up.

Another perennial poppy that has adapted to drought is the Oriental, the large hairy garden variety available in a wide range of colours from white through burgundy. Many lose their leaves in the summer after flowering, but the leaves re-emerge in the fall.

Now to my favourite: the Icelandics, Papaver nudicale. This poppy has thin hairy stems and delicate downward facing buds which open to a wide array of tissue paper flowers, depending on the variety. I’m currently growing the ‘Champagne Bubbles’ series, and a mixed nudicale series from West Coast Seeds.

The Bubbles and Sherbet series grow on stems over a foot long, have lovely limey foliage and blooms measuring up to six inches in diameter with lush yellow stamens. I cannot wait for these to bloom because my germination rate was low from a March sowing. This year I plan to sow them in the fall and overwinter them for earlier bloom. The seed is minuscule and poppies abhor transplanting, but patience and faith seem to have earned me a small crop. When their buds crack – any day now – I shall sear their stems with blowtorch (or a match), to allow me to appreciate them as they open in the vase.

Christin Geall is an avid Oak Bay gardener and creative non-fiction writing instructor at the University of Victoria.

 

Just Posted

Oak Bay brothers scoop 10 kg of poop from park paths in 30 mins

Family picks up dog poo to give back, inspire others to be more responsible

Crash snarles traffic on Highway 17

Traffic southbound is seriously delayed and northbound down to one lane on… Continue reading

UPDATED: Materials linked to 1992 Colwood murder found at construction site in Metchosin

West Shore RCMP investigating to determine if relevant to the old case

Federal government announces over $115 million to Royal Canadian Navy

Defence Minister Harjit S. Sajjan was at CFB Esquimalt to announce missile system upgrades

Victoria woman sets date to swim the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Susan Simmons will attempt to be the first to swim the Strait twice starting Saturday afternoon

PHOTOS: B.C. city wakes up to darkness under wildfire smoke

The rest of the province also dealing with thick haze as smoky skies continue

Safeway union urgest rejection of mediator recommendations

Says mediator asks for too many concessions

Five things to do in Greater Victoria this weekend

Puppy yoga, horses, cars, water guns and more make up this weekend’s list of events to see

Fire chases B.C. crews out of their own camp

Crews in Burns Lake had to leave after a wildfire reportedly overtook their sleeping quarters

Saanich teen takes her karate skills onto the world stage

National champion Olivia Brodie will compete at the 2018 Junior Pan-American Karate Championships

First long-awaited Cyclone lands near Victoria airport

Military helicopter first of nine to come to Saanich Peninsula base

To address peacock problem, B.C. city moves ahead on trapping plan

Surrey’s new bylaw focuses on ensuring people no longer feed the birds, ahead of relocation

Hospitals to see ‘delays’ in care after losing Saudi students, health group says

About 1,000 Saudi residents called back to kingdom after suspending diplomatic relations with Canada

Most Read