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Poppies are found around the globe from icy cold tundra to broiling hot deserts, mostly in the northern hemisphere. Poppies are a large family of plants that includes annuals, biennials, perennials, and even semi-shrubs and small evergreen trees.
They range in height from less than an inch high to over 20 feet tall. Flowers can be smaller than a thimble or larger than a dinner plate - plus they come in colors from translucent white through ivory, yellow, golden, orange, and red, even ranging into shades of blue and purple.
Botanists divide poppies into almost 800 species grouped into 42 genera. And those are just the wild species! Plant breeders have been playing with poppies for thousands of years, and now there are almost too many cultivars and varieties to choose from. Almost.
Most commonly, gardeners can choose from the annual poppies grown each year from seed (Papaver, Eschscholtzia), or perennial poppies that come back from underground roots each year (Papaver, Stylophorum). Either way, poppies are pure joy to have in the garden or scattered across the landscape.
The ephemeral flowers open to delight us with shimmering colors in a wealth of shades, from dazzling white to cream, and through the spectrum to yellow, golden, orange, peach, pink, red, scarlet, lavender, plum, purple, and mahogany.
The secret to success with poppies is to select the best species for your zone and soil type.
Iceland Poppies (considered Papaver nudicaule) are a hybridized swarm of annual species from boreal (sub-polar) regions of Europe, Asia and North America, but not from Iceland. These poppies do best in cooler zones (USDA Zones 3-7) and mildly acidic soils (pH 6.0 to 7.0). If your night-time temperatures get much over 70 degrees before July, these are not a good poppy for your area. Plants spread to 18 inches wide with green foliage and produce fragrant flowers on 3 foot stalks that can be 3 to 4 inches across. Technically these are short-lived perennials, but most gardeners grow them as annuals.
Red Poppies (Papaver rhoeas) are annuals also called Flanders, corn, and field poppy. They have also been hybridized to create the Shirley poppy. Originally from Mesopotamia, the red poppies spread into southern Europe, southern Asia, and north Africa. These poppies do best in warmer zones (USDA zones 4-9) and in mild soils that are not overly acidic, soils can even be chalky (pH 6.5 to 7.5). Plants spread to 18 inches wide with green foliage and flowers on 2 to 4 foot stalks that can be 2 to 4 inches across.
California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are annual poppies native to western North America - from Mexico through California and into the Southwestern deserts that get winter and spring moisture. They do well in soils that have a pH of 6.5 to 8.0 and can take temperatures up to 90 degrees. Plants spread to 12 inches wide with lacy silvery-blue foliage and the flowers on 2 to 18 inch stalks can be 1 to 4 inches across. Incidentally, this genus once used to have a number of species including the Mexican poppy and the Death Valley poppy, but now they're all considered the same species.
Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) are perennial poppies but are not from what we call the Orient today. The name comes from the Latin word for “East” and some centuries ago, exotic Persia was considered remote and east of the known (European) world. Along with desert areas, Persia has cool mountains with snowy winters, and that's the climate Oriental poppies prefer. They do well in well-drained soils that have a pH of 6.5 to 7.0 and can take temperatures from -10 up to 90 degrees. Plants spread to 2 feet wide with coarse green foliage and the flowers appear on 12 to 30 inch stalks and can be 1 to 4 inches across.
Celendine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) is a perennial poppy native to eastern North America, and ideal for the gardener with a woodland garden. Unlike the previous species, they do well in moist soil with a pH of 5.8 to 7.0, and will even grow in clay soils. Plants spread to 18 inches wide with coarse, bluish-green foliage. The bright yellow flowers often appear in clusters on 12 to 18 inch stalks and can be 1 to 3 inches across.
Poppies have an ancient lineage. Genealogically speaking, they have close family ties to plants that hung out with the dinosaurs. This means they have been in the “arms race” against animals who want to eat them for a very long time. Some very unpleasant plant chemicals have been created in this arms race (think of poison ivy) but some poppies have chemicals that humans cherish.
Back in the days of Gilgamesh, when warriors hacked away at each other with bronze swords, herbalists discovered that crushed poppy seeds in wine helped dull pain and lull patients to sleep. Humans have been raising poppies ever since. Not just raising them, but breeding them to produce more flowers, trading the seeds, taxing the seeds, and decorating temples and palaces with carvings and paintings of the flowers and pods for over 6000 years.
All members of the poppy family contain alkaloids, not just the opium poppies. Alkaloids can be deadly and should be treated with respect. Many cultures consider various species of poppy as medicinal plants, and they can be - with the correct dosage and use. Pet owners should monitor their pets. In general, poppy plants are so distasteful that all animals, including domestic pets, avoid them after a sniff or a brief taste.
Oriental, Iceland and Shirley poppies make excellent cut flowers. The best time to harvest them is right before the buds open. When cut, the stems ooze a milky latex that is messy and will prevent the flower from lasting without heat treatment. Sear the cut ends with a match or place the ends of the cut stems in hot water (110 to 180 degrees) for 20 to 30 seconds. Even with treatment the cut flowers only last a few days.
The joy of being a gardener is that you get to design your space and fill it with what you like to look at - within constraints of pesky facts of life like soil type and local climate. Luckily for all of us gardening in North America, there is one or more type of poppy that will grow in every zone. Just pay attention to your soil type as well as your zone and then you can go to town selecting color, form, and variety.
I have a football fanatic at home, and cultivate a garden in hues of his favorite team. Football gardens can be easy for the Minnesota Vikings (purple and yellow), startling in intensity for the Denver Broncos (orange and blue) or well nigh impossible for the New Orleans Saints (gold and black) - but with poppies you can find the colors required.
Poppies fit into a variety of theme gardens. If you have a biblical garden – full of plants mentioned in both the Old and New Testament - then poppies fit right in. Poppies are mentioned in other religious writings as well, including Bahai, Buddhist, and Sufi. Or you could consider geologic time and have a dinosaur theme garden – especially if you have youngsters. Poppy relatives grew in dinosaur times. Beatrix Potter fan? An English Cottage Garden should be dripping with poppies.
You get to choose which poppies will parade in your garden.
About the Author: Jacqueline A. Soule, garden writer and popular speaker, has produced over 1000 gardening columns for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines. You can find her online at GardeningWithSoule.com
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