Where to plant poppies?

Opium poppies traditionally are white, but also come in a variety of colors such as red and purple.

(Photo: AP)

Papaver somniferum, one of the few species of poppy that produces opium, is an annual plant with a growth cycle of 120 days. Farmers plant seeds, which range in color from white to yellow to brown and gray, in shallow holes. Within six weeks a cabbage-like plant emerges. It takes eight weeks for the poppy plant to grow about one to two feet. Each poppy has one long primary stem with secondary stems called tillers. As the plant continues to grow, a bud develops at the tip. After 90 days, the bud blossoms into a flower with four petals in a variety of colors. The petals fall away to reveal a green pod or ghozah that will continue to grow to the size of an egg. Inside the pod is the ovary that produces opium. Opium, which contains over 50 types of alkaloids including codeine and morphine, is only produced during the ten to 12 day period when the pod is ripening. Once the pod reaches maturity, the alkaloids in the opium are no longer made.

Sources: US Department of Justice, “Opium: A History” by Martin Booth, “Unholy Wars” by John Cooley

Photo: AP

Heroin Fact

In 1803, a German pharmacist, F.W. Sertürner isolated the main alkaloid of opium and named it morphine after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Morphine was soon widely used for medical purposes in Europe and the U.S. But by the end of the century, addiction to the drug had become a problem. In 1898, while searching for a non-addictive substitute for morphine, Heinrick Dresser, working at the Bayer Laboratory in Germany, developed diacetylmorphine. Bayer marketed it under the brand name Heroin. The new drug, however, turned out to be up to ten times more potent than morphine.

Poppy Primer

When it comes to poppies, there always seems to be a great deal of confusion surrounding the different types, their growing needs, and whether or not they can be used for flower arranging.

I thought it might be helpful to break down the four different types of seed-grown poppies that are most commonly grown for cut flowers and explain what makes them different and special.

Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicale)

Iceland poppies are technically considered a perennial and can survive cold winter temperatures, but because they don’t handle heat and insects very well, they are typically grown as hardy annuals or biennials by flower farmers.

This particular flower requires a good deal of care when started from seed because it is slow to germinate and the seeds are as tiny as grains of sand.

When starting seeds, it is imperative that you take great care and barely cover them with the finest dusting of vermiculite or sand. For the first few weeks, bottom water by setting your seed trays in a few inches of standing water and letting them wick up the moisture from below. This will ensure that you don’t accidentally wash away the babies with a powerful overhead spray.

Seed flats should be kept in a warm room or on heat mats around 70ºF (21ºC) until the tiny seedlings emerge and develop at least 2 sets of leaves. I typically start seeds about 8 weeks before transplanting them into the ground.

Seedlings are slow to start and often stall out around the time they need to be transplanted. If left in the trays too long, they will fail to thrive.

Even though plants seem too tiny and delicate to be planted into the soil, it’s important that you don’t let them sit in their trays any longer than 10 weeks. Once plants are in the ground, they will explode with new growth and are typically in full flower about 6 weeks after transplanting. Even though they seem weak, they have a lot of hidden vigor.

The number one reason people fail when it comes to Iceland poppies is that they don’t approach their seed sowing with enough care. This particular crop cannot be direct seeded and must be started in trays and transplanted into good growing ground when the time is right. This is not a beginner crop.

Depending on where you live, you can either sow them in late summer and transplant them out in early fall to overwinter and flower in the spring. If you are unable to fall sow, seeds should be started no later than mid-February so that flowers will be blooming before the heat of summer arrives.

We have successfully grown Iceland poppies in hoop houses and out in the field. I prefer to grow them under cover whenever possible because it allows me to have flowers up to 6 weeks earlier than those planted in the field, and the delicate flowers are protected.

Once flowers start to bloom, it can be a full-time job just to keep them picked. The best stage to harvest Iceland poppies is when the buds are just starting to crack open and the tiniest sliver of color can be seen. This is called cracking bud stage.

Iceland poppies have a surprisingly long vase life, up to a week if picked at the proper stage and treated.

Shortly after harvest, use an open flame or boiling water to sear the stem ends for 7 to 10 seconds and place into water with flower food.

Breadseed poppies (Papaver spp.)

Of all the poppies, the breadseed varieties are by far the easiest to grow. While the cut flowers aren’t particularly long-lasting, persisting just 2 to 3 days in the vase, they make a wonderful addition to the garden, leaving behind the most beautiful gray- or blue-green decorative seed pods that can be used either fresh or dried.

If you want to attempt to use the flowers in arrangements, harvest when they are only half open and sear the bottom ends in boiling water for 7 to 10 seconds. I have tried more times than I’d like to count to get these beauties to last longer, without any luck. If you have any other tricks I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

Breadseed poppies resent transplanting and do best when direct sown. You can plant them directly into the garden as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. Keep in mind that slugs love them, so you’ll need to monitor growing plants closely.

One of my favorite things about breadseed poppies is that they self seed freely. Once you grow them, you will forever have them popping up around your garden.

To save your own seed, pick the pods when they are starting to turn from green to brown or when the little vents around the crown open. I gather bunches of ripe pods and cover them with a paper grocery sack and turn them upside down to dry in the garage for a few weeks. As the pods and seeds ripen, the seeds will fall into the bag and can be stored away for years to come.

Little envelopes of homegrown seed make great gifts!

Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas)

Next to breadseed poppies, Shirley poppies are the easiest to grow. One plant will produce flower heads for up to 6 glorious weeks, and as each blossom fades it leaves behind the most beautiful miniature seed pods that make amazing additions to boutonnieres and dried creations.

While individual flowers are short lived—lasting 3 to 4 days if stem ends are seared 7 to 10 seconds in boiling water—it’s important to harvest blooms just as they are opening and before the bees find them. Unlike other poppy varieties, Shirley poppies produce clouds of dusty pollen. So if you have allergies, take care.

I love using their tissue paper-like blooms in arrangements that don’t need to last super long, including wedding centerpieces and bridal bouquets.

Plants are vigorous and free-flowering. Of all the flower varieties we grow, none is more loved by the bees than Shirley poppies. Standing next to a row of these flowers in full bloom with the bees working through the patch is a sight to behold.

Shirley poppies resent transplanting and are best direct sown. They can be planted into the garden as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring.

If you are starting them indoors, just be sure to take extra care when transplanting them out, and don’t disturb the roots too much. Shirley poppies will vigorously self seed if pods are left on the plant. So if you don’t want them as a permanent resident, don’t let them go to seed.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)

While not actually a poppy at all, California poppies are a versatile, easy-to-grow, drought-tolerant group of plants that blooms all summer long. They are well-suited for small spaces and can either be direct seeded or started indoors and planted out as soon as the weather warms in the spring.

Like other poppies, these beauties self seed and will pop up everywhere, even in the cracks of the pavement.

Unlike the bright orange native variety that grows wild throughout the southern and western United States, there are a handful of new cultivars that are as beautiful as they are hardworking.

These low-growing plants flower over an incredibly long period of time. California poppies are well-suited for the front of the border and are great in containers if space is limited. One sowing will bloom all summer long.

For cut flowers, harvest when the blooms are in colored bud stage. Individual flowers don’t last super long, only 3 to 4 days, but as they fade and drop their petals, the new buds on the stem will pop open, giving you a total of a week’s worth of flowers from one stem. These poppies do not require any searing to last this long in the vase.

Depending on how much patience you have and how you plan to use them, you’re sure to find a poppy that meets your needs. No cutting garden is complete without them!

Do you grow poppies? Do you have a favorite variety? Please take a minute and leave a comment below about your experience growing poppies.

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Papaver somniferum in bloom.

Native to Southeastern Europe and Western Asia, breadseed poppy, Papaver somniferum was cultivated in Europe since the Neolithic era and in America as ornamental plants before 1750. This plant contains narcotic alkaloids which are the active compounds of opium and many refined opiates, such as morphine and codeine. Somniferum – meaning “sleep bringing” in Latin – refers to the narcotic properties of the plant. Most of the medicinal opium in the world is produced in India and Turkey. Opium is extracted primarily from the seed capsules. The edible seeds are widely used in baked goods such as bagels, muffins and cakes, and since they contain 40- 50% oil can be pressed for oil for cooking – similar to sesame oil – or for use in oil-based paints.

The tiny poppy seeds (L) have a reticulate seed coat when viewed up close (R).

Some plants have high alkaloid content and are grown to produce opium or medicinal drugs. Most of the horticultural types (for ornamental use or seed production) were selected for their appearance and may contain only trace amounts of alkaloids, but some can have the same morphine content as those grown for opium. As a Schedule 2 controlled substance, it is technically illegal to grow P. somniferum in the United States, but typically this is not enforced for poppies grown as ornamentals.

Breadseed poppy plants grow quickly from seed up to three feet tall. They are hardy, cool season annuals, germinating early in the season and the foliage is not affected by light frosts (the flowers are sensitive to freezing). The dull green to blue-green, glaucous leaves clasp the strong upright stems growing from a stout tap root. The smooth leaves have jagged edges and a crisp texture, resembling loose-leaf lettuce leaves. The foliage begins to decline once the plant is in bloom, and by the time the flowers are done will dry up completely.

Seedling with seed coat still on cotyledon (L), seedlings with first set of true leaves (LC), young plants (C and RC), and developing plant before blooming (R).

Single types have luminous, papery petals.

Blooming in early- to mid-summer, this common annual can have flowers in many shades of pink, red and purple, as well as white and bicolors. Single types have 5 luminous, papery petals, while double types have many more. Singles or partly double forms form a cup shape, with a dark or white blotch at the base. Flowers on large plants can be up to 4 inches across. The paeoniflorum group has double flowers that are reminiscent of a peony and the laciniatum group has highly double flowers with deeply lobed petals that give the flower a ruffled, pompon appearance.

Many forms of Papaver somniferum have dark blotches at the base of the cup of petals.

Fat, dull-green, buds covered with soft hairs start out hanging from downward-nodding stems, like a shepherd’s crook, but become erect as the sepals open to reveal the tightly packed petals. The sepals typically fall off the plant, but occasionally will remain attached at the base of the flower. The plants are self-fertile, and are pollinated by bees. The flowers can be used as cut flowers, lasting longer if the cut stem is cauterized before placing in water.

Flower bud emerging from middle of plant (L), growing hanging down (L), then starting to straighten up (RC) as the sepals open (R).

Flower bud of a pink highly double (lacinatum group) opening (L), expanding (LC), at peak bloom (RC) and petals shattering (R).

In a few days the petals fall off, leaving behind an ovoid seed capsule. The green capsules swell to become up to as large as a golf ball. They turn brown as they mature. Each seed capsule contains numerous small, round black, white, or grayish-blue seeds with a favose-reticulate (honeycombed) seed coat. Large capsules can contain up to a thousand seeds. When ripe, several vents develop at the top of the capsule to allow the seeds to be dispersed. Dried mature seed capsules can be used in floral arrangements and crafts.

The petals fall off (L) to reveal a fat green capsule (LC) which eventually dries and turns brown as small vents open at the top (RC). The seed inside the capsule turns from white (top R) to brown (bottom R), then black as it matures.

Plant breadseed poppies in annual or mixed beds for colorful flowers in summer.

Use breadseed poppy in annual or mixed beds for its attractive foliage early in the season and the colorful flowers in the summer. They are bests mixed in with other plants which will disguise the senescing foliage as they finish blooming or will fill in after the plants are removed. They can also be grown in larger containers that provide enough room for good development.

Breadseed poppy is very easy to grow in full sun in well-drained soil. Plants rarely need staking, especially if spaced properly to allow for robust development. They have few pests other than aphids on occasion.

Breadseed poppy self sows readily, so deadhead or prepare to remove lots of seedlings.

Breadseed poppies are easy to grow in full sun.

As annuals, poppies are only grown from seed, and self-sow readily. They do best sown directly in the desired location in either early spring or late summer/fall to germinate the following spring. Sprinkle the small gray, black or brown seeds on prepared soil, but do not cover. Mixing the seeds with some sand makes it easier to spread them more evenly over the planting area as you can see where you’ve broadcast them. Seeds should germinate in about a week or two in early spring. They germinate better in cool soil, so seeding later in the spring often is unsuccessful. They can also be started indoors if necessary, but need to be kept cooler than room temperature to do well. Once the seedlings are about an inch tall, thin the plants to about a foot apart. Remove the smallest plants (pull or cut off the tops), or transplant carefully, trying to disturb the roots as little as possible as they have very sensitive root systems and do not transplant well. Plants growing closer together will be small, weak, and produce fewer and much smaller flowers.

To reduce volunteers, deadhead before the seed capsules turn brown (or pull out the entire plant after flowering, but often larger plants are still producing flower buds when the first seed capsules are ripening). To save seed, invert opened capsules into a container. To sow in another area, just cut off the opened capsules and shake them over the new area.

There are many heirloom varieties that are passed along without a name other than the color. But there are many named varieties which can be purchased, including these examples (and many more):

  • ‘Black Widow’ has deep purple, fully double flowers.
  • ‘Cherry Glow’ has large, scarlet petals and decorative seed heads excellent for use in dried arrangements.
  • Double Raspberry Blush ‘Plaza de Rito’ is a deep pink double flower with a frilly center.
  • ‘Flemish Antique’ has fully double flowers in shades of red, rose and striped creamy white.
  • Fluffy Ruffles is a mixture of ‘Crimson Feathers’, ‘Rose Feathers’ and ‘Swansdown’, all having deeply laciniated petals resembling a pompom in crimson, rose and white.
  • ‘Frosted Salmon’ has orangy-pink petals that fade along the edges with age.
  • ‘Hens and Chickens’ produces one main pod surrounded by masses of smaller pods giving the impression of a mother hen and chicks.
  • ‘Swansdown’ is a white laciniatum type.
  • ‘Venus’ is a laciniatum type with large fringed petals of rosy red with white on the underside at the base of the petals.
  • ‘White Cloud’ is a paeoniflorum type with extra-large, pure white double flowers.

Papaver somniferum may have flowers in various shades of red, pink, purple and white, and in single, double and highly double forms (the varieties pictured were unnamed).

Poppies hybridize easily, so if trying to save specific varieties, plant them far apart or cover the flowers with small bags as they open to prevent cross pollination (but you may need to hand pollinate by moving the pollen from the anthers to the stigma with a small brush).

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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How to Grow Poppies

Poppies are one of the prettiest flowers to grow in a garden. They come in bright reds and warm oranges and form informal patches of color in your late spring garden. Most poppies self seed a little bit too so that once established they are carefree in the garden.

Poppies are best when they are grown from seed that is planted in fall or winter, even in cold winter areas. The seeds need to go through the natural freeze and thaw cycles to germinate and that is accomplished by fall sowing. They can also be sown in early spring, about a month before your last frost date. If your land is easily disturbed, try winter sowing: put some potting mix at the bottom of a small container and sow the seeds, then place the container outside in January or February. The containers keep the seed from washing away or being disturbed by animals.

To sow directly into the garden, prepare the area where you want your seeds to grow by raking the area smooth and removing any rocks. In fall, after the soil has cooled down, sprinkle the seeds on the ground. Cover lightly and mark the area. When the snow melts and the ground is warmed by a spring sun, the seeds germinate and start to grow.

Although poppies are trouble free in the garden they do need a sunny position that is sheltered. The flower stalks are quite frail and can be damaged by spring storm winds and heavy rain. The protection of a shrub, wall or support hoop helps keep them safe from such damage. Varieties that only grow to about 2 feet, such as some heirlooms and compact poppies, are less prone to environmental damage than the taller varieties.

Information On Growing Poppy Flowers

The poppy (Papaver rhoeas L.) is an ancient flowering plant, long desired by gardeners in a range of landscape situations. Learning how to grow poppies allows you to use their beauty in many flower beds and gardens. Planting poppies is simple and rewarding when their single and double blooms appear in cooler seasons.

History of Planting Poppies

Growing poppy flowers are said to spring up on ravaged battlefields, as long ago as the 12th century. White poppies appeared on battlefields left by Mogul warrior Genghis Khan and were sighted in war zones following some battles of World War I. Thus, they have come to symbolize death and rebirth. The red poppy symbolizes fallen warriors and commemorates Veteran’s Day in the United States.

Growing poppy flowers have been used for medicinal and culinary purposes over the centuries. The seeds of the poppy are currently used in flavoring for breads and cakes and for the production of poppy seed oil.

How to Plant Poppies

Growing poppy flowers can be as simple as planting seeds or dividing roots of existing plants. Plant poppies from seed into poor to average soil in a sunny location for a good start to growing poppy flowers in your garden.

Poppies grow from a taproot. When this taproot is disturbed in transplanting, a lost season of bloom may occur when planting poppies. Divide poppies in autumn to allow time for the taproot to restore itself.

Planting poppies in either way can provide attractive foliage and large or diminutive flowers in your garden, flower bed or meadow.

Poppy plant care involves the deadheading of spent flowers, resulting in more prolific blooms of the poppy plant.

Poppy flowers need limited watering once they have settled into their location. Too much water can result in tall, leggy, unattractive growth of the growing poppy flower.

Choosing the variety of poppy best suited for your garden is an intriguing garden chore. The Armenian poppy is among the smaller and more delicate offerings. Oriental poppies offer the largest and showiest blooms but may die back during summer heat. California poppies self seed abundantly and should be planted where more poppies are desirable.

Learning how to plant poppies correctly provides you with a striking choice for many sunny locations where soil has not been enriched or amended.

Lemon-Poppy Seed muffins are good to eat!

Poppy seeds are very small in size and add a quite delicious “crunch” to breads, cake and muffins, but did you know these beautiful flowers are easily grown in either full sun or bright shade? Regular garden soils, not too rich with compost and other amendments is perfect. Fast draining soils are a must however, and in gardens that are mostly clay – a raised bed with native soil, sand and a light proportion of compost – will work just fine to provide enough drainage from heavy rainfall or accidental over watering.

Annual Poppy seeds (flowers in one season) can be planted anytime between fall and spring and you can collect the mature seeds to plant in another garden site for next year, use them in cooking or simply let the pods mature and fall in place – called “self sowing”.
Poppies need light to germinate, so if you cover these tiny seeds with soil, peat, vermiculite, or sifted compost they will not grow. Fallen leaves from trees and shrubs can interfere with germination (cutting off the light), but snow is not a problem – as it melts, your poppies will begin to germinate whether they were fall planted by you or growing from mature pods dropped on the ground in fall.

‘Lankon’ lilies with poppies growing in the row.

However, seed that has been buried and then
brought to the surface during garden cleanup, roto-tilling or planting of other flowers may even germinate several years later.
In spring of 2010, Dianna scattered surplus seeds of her ‘Purple Poppies’ in a bare section of field.
Husband, Bob, not knowing what she had done, only saw Groundsel, Thistles and other weeds starting to grow in the “unused ground”. He tilled the soil, effectively cutting the seed off from light and so none germinated, especially with subsequent cultivation and planting of oats to build up the soil in preparation for a future lily crop.
When oats are used for a cover crop, they are thickly sown and tilled into the ground when they’ve grown about a foot tall in order to add nutrients and of bio-mass to the soil – vastly improving the soil texture. Any poppy seed brought to the surface by the roto-tilling would not have had enough light to grow with the quick-to-sprout oats, or wouldn’t had time to grow more than a few inches before those oats were dug into the soil. That fall a second round of oats were planted, tilled into the soil in late winter, and the lilies planted in March. (See our blog post Semi-automated Planting of Lily Bulbs – where you can see an example of lush green oats growing in between lily rows.)
To everyone’s surprise, after we finally left the soil alone for several weeks, a nice scattering of poppies began growing in between the lily sprouts – and were left to grow together over summer. After all, who could weed them out with all they had been through?

“Plant poppy seed in a specially prepared bed”.

Dianna’s Purple Poppies – flowers are 3 to 5 inches in size.

1. Plant poppy seed in a specially prepared bed, cleaning out perennial weeds from an area about 18 inches across for one or two packets of seed. Deeply dig to loosen the soil and fluff it to lighten and find any missed roots. Do not use commercial potting soil, the texture is much too coarse for successful poppy germination by itself. (More about that later.)
2. Water the planting site and let it sit overnight to firm the soil and provide ground moisture if the weather has been quite dry. This step is not necessary in fall through winter months, especially if the weather has been wet.
3. Using a small leaf rake, your fingers, a household fork or hand-held cultivator tool, scratch the surface to make a very shallow “texture” – not too deep – you only want the top 1/4 inch loosened without depressions for the seed to become lost.
4. Scatter seed evenly across the entire surface. You can mix the seed with fine sand and sprinkle from a pepper shaker or whatever method you like.
5. Gently pat down the planting area with your hands to firm the soil and ensure the seeds make contact and do not dry out. (This is the reason why simply scattering seed throughout your garden does not work. Seeds will cling to leaves, sit on top of a rock or accidentally be buried while you weed.)
6. Water with a fine mist from your hose, so as to not form “puddles”. During dry spring weather, keep the soil lightly moist until germination, after which you can let nature water the plants.

Mature poppy seed roots 12″ long

Transplanting small seedlings can be done carefully.

This is only possible if the newly germinated seedlings are less than 1/4 inch tall – much bigger and you risk disturbing the newly formed taproot and the developing feeder roots. (The photograph on the left is of a 4 foot tall plant at the end of the season, that was pulled out of dry sandy soil, with nearly all the roots intact. See how there are not a lot of roots radiating out from the taproot, the reason you cannot move mature stems without damage.)
To transplant, you simply lift out sections of soil with a trowel about 2 to 3 inches across – do not try to separate the seedlings – and simply move the entire mini clump of 10 – 15 seedlings to a new section of prepared fluffy soil. The strongest seedlings in each clump will continue to grow.

Sowing poppy seeds in containers.

Commercial potting soil is generally more heavily textured than your native garden soil. When poppy seeds are sown on the surface, they will generally fall between the soil componets and not be accessible to light. When watered they may become buried even further. A solution would be to simply sow a 1/4 inch layer of very fine freshwater beach sand (not from salt water) on the surface of the potting soil and then scatter the seed on top of that. Poppy seeds do a fine job of self sowing on the finely crushed rock of our paths, so you can skip the “patting down” (step #5) but be certain to keep the pot slightly moist. The soil underneath the sand should stay moist, even if the sand on top appears drier. If you wish to grow the seed in 4″ pots to transplant later, simply sow a few seeds in each container and transplant the entire root ball when the plants roots have begun to fill out the pot. Do not thin the plants, let the dominant seedlings grow. Do not try to separate the seedlings either – we tried that – and both halves died, probably because the fragile tap roots were damaged.

Ripening seed pods in the garden.

Gathering seed in fall.

The brown colored pods in the photo are ready for harvest. We simply cut them close to the pod as the color changes and leave everything in a clean bucket to finish drying. We then pour the seed pods into a household strainer and the tiny seeds fall through into a new bucket. It is hard to retrieve all the seed in one or two passes, so the mostly empty pods are then scattered over a cleaned and prepared garden to break down over winter and release the remaining seed. Of course, you still need to be careful to not accidentally pull out the tiny plants during spring cleaning or bury the not yet germinated seed with mulch.
‘Dianna’s Purple Poppy’ seeds are available from B&D Lilies. Here is the link to order seed.

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