Poppy Plant Overview
What are Poppies?
Poppies are known for their prolonged blooming season, vibrant flowers, and self-seeding nature.
Poppies are beautiful flowering plants well-known for their beauty and usefulness. These herbaceous perennials have a long blooming time, produce attractive, brightly colored flowers for a long period of the year, and readily reseed themselves, making them highly desirable for filling large spaces in the garden.
Also known for their medicinal use, poppies are not without controversy, and their legality is commonly questioned. They are well known for being a memorial symbol for wartime veterans. The drifts of bright orange California poppies are a sight to behold on the United States West Coast.
Despite their delicate appearance, poppy plants and flowers are sturdy and resilient. They are considered drought-tolerant and can thrive in sandy and rocky soil, performing and blooming profusely throughout the year. Though they are perennials only in a few zones, they generously reseed themselves, popping up year after year as annuals.
This plant was used for both medicine and recreation as early as 3400 BCE by the Sumerians.
The poppy plant has a rich and storied history. While these flowers are now considered ornamentals, their use as a medicinal preparation dates back to 3400 BCE by the Sumerians, who also recorded using it recreationally.
Their notoriety came about as word of their uses spread to neighboring civilizations, and ultimately, they became the most profitable products transported on the famous Silk Road. From this trade route, they traversed throughout Asia, ultimately finding their way across the world.
One species, in particular, Papaver somniferum, is responsible for the production of opiates, a family of narcotics that includes codeine, oxycodone, and heroin. Over time, this species of poppy has become quite controversial. While it cannot be grown for opiate production, this species is also the primary source of poppy seeds used culinarily, making it a handy addition to the garden.
Other popular species can be purchased for ornamental growth as well. One of these pretty flowering plants is the state flower of California, where it can be observed and enjoyed in enormous numbers, decorating vast coastal hillsides.
The opium poppy likely comes from the Mediterranean and perhaps Africa.
There are species of poppies native to several continents, including the United States, such as Papaver nudicaule, which is a subspecies of the Icelandic Poppy. Papaver radiacatum, as well, is native to North America.
The opium or breadseed poppy is thought to be native to the Mediterranean region and possibly Africa. However, its extensive cultivation elsewhere makes it difficult to say for certain. There are species native to Europe and Asia as well, such as the corn poppy.
Seeds are released from beneath this disk when agitated by the wind or passing animals.
Poppy plants have dissected leaves, and their unripened seed pods contain a milky sap. This sap is the portion of the plant that is used medicinally and as a drug in P. somniferum. When ripe, the seed pod is most commonly known for the small, black seeds inside that are used as a seasoning in culinary use.
The flowers are bowl-shaped with four to six petals. A center cluster of stamens surrounds the flower’s ovary, which is spherical and topped with a disk. From under this disk, the seeds escape when shaken by the wind or passing animals.
The most well-known colors of the poppy flower are brilliant red and the bright orange of Eschscholzia californica, or the California poppy. While this plant is part of a different genus, it is part of the same subfamily and is noteworthy for its myriad appearances on the West Coast.
Opium poppies are often pinkish or purple in color, and other species come in shades of white, ivory, yellow, purple, and even blue! The wide range and beautiful form of these flowers owes to their popularity among gardeners and florists alike.
Beyond their medicinal and cosmetic uses, poppies are cultivated globally for their aesthetic appeal.
In addition to its use as a powerful painkiller and narcotic, poppy flowers have several other uses that are generally less nefarious. The petals of P. rhoeas, or the field poppy or corn poppy, have been used as a mild pain reliever, a cough syrup, a wrinkle reducer, and a digestive aid. It’s even found in some lipstick ingredient lists.
Field poppies have an additional but solemn use: as an international flower of remembrance. The corn poppy was referenced in a poem from World War I entitled “In Flanders Fields,” and author Lieutenant Colonel John McRae spoke of their red hue spread out between markers in the cemeteries after the war. One variant, ‘American Legion,’ is often worn as a lapel flower during remembrance ceremonies to this day.
In addition to their medicinal and cosmetic uses, poppies are grown worldwide as a beautiful ornamental. They can be grown from zones 2-10. Depending on the type and climate, they are grown as annuals, biennials, and perennials.
Where to Buy Poppies
Poppy plants can be found in nurseries and other plant-selling outlets.
Poppies are most often grown from seed, and their seeds are available online and in local nurseries.
Poppy roots can also be found through some vendors. Poppy plants are usually found in nurseries and other stores that carry plants during the spring months. The seeds are usually started in late fall and winter.
Planting in fall results in spring germination and late spring flowering.
When to Plant
Most often grown from seed, poppies can be sown in fall or spring. If you plant in spring, you are not likely to see flowers the first year, as poppy seeds need to undergo the naturally cool weather of winter for germination. For this reason, planting during fall will mean that the seeds naturally stratify outside, germinate in the spring, and plants flower in the late spring. Some poppies are among the first flowers seen each year.
If you’ve missed the opportunity to plant your seeds in the fall, you can carry out cold stratification indoors, which will trick your seeds into believing that they were planted in the fall and underwent winter in the ground. Cold stratification involves putting your seeds in the refrigerator for a few weeks before planting them.
How to Sow
Poppy seeds grow best when directly sown, so they don’t need to be started indoors, although they can be. Soaking the seeds overnight is unnecessary.
The seeds can be sprinkled directly on top of the soil, as they are very tiny and do not need to be buried. In fact, these seeds need some light to germinate, so it’s best to leave them uncovered altogether. Germination usually takes two to three weeks once the ground thaws. After your poppies sprout, thin them to one plant for every 12”-24” to give them enough space to grow roots.
Poppy seeds are easy to harvest. I remember helping my mother with this task when I was no more than four years old. Leave the spent flowers on the plant, and when the seed pods dry out, simply pop the cap off of the ovary and pour the seeds out into your hand or container.
How to Grow
Poppies are not difficult to grow, and they are sturdy plants that readily self-seed once established. Some species are perennial in their native zones. Others are annuals, but you can expect them to seed themselves and return the following year if you leave the seed pods to dry on the plant.
Insufficient sunlight can lead to the development of unattractive, leggy poppies.
Poppies need plenty of sunlight to perform and bloom their best. They should be planted in a space that receives at least six hours of sun on most days. For these plants, truly, the more sun, the better they will grow and bloom.
Poppies grown without enough sun grow ragged and leggy as they etiolate (stretch towards the sunlight), which is not very attractive. They are also more prone to mold and mildew-type diseases, which poppies are generally vulnerable to. Shady locations increase this vulnerability.
To ensure successful poppy germination and root establishment, it’s essential to maintain moisture.
Poppies need to be kept moist through the germination process and until they establish roots. Once established, these are considered to be drought-tolerant plants. Established poppies should be watered about once per week in the absence of measurable rain.
Poppies naturally grow in places with coarse, well-draining soil and only intermittent rain. As such, they prefer for their soil to dry between waterings. During long spells of hot and dry weather, additional watering may be needed. If your poppies look wilted and drooping from the day’s heat, they should likely be watered.
Poppies thrive in sandy or coarse-textured soil with a neutral to slightly acidic pH.
There are no hard and fast rules to the type of soil poppies can grow in except for one. They must have proper drainage. This makes clay a less-than-ideal soil type for growing poppies, although it can be done with heavy amendment.
Poppies perform best with soil that is sandy or otherwise coarse in texture and with a pH that is neutral to slightly acidic. Amending your sandy soil with some organic compost will maintain proper drainage while supplying your poppies with the acidity and nutrients they need to thrive.
Temperature and Humidity
Excessive humidity can make these poppies susceptible to fungal diseases.
Poppies do best when kept at a warm to mild temperature. An ideal temperature range for these plants to flower in is between 50°-75°F. Too much heat mid-summer can cause your poppies to go dormant, which means that their growth will slow considerably, and they are unlikely to produce many flowers. When the temperature begins to fall in autumn, poppies will enjoy a second bloom in many cases.
Humidity is not a poppy’s friend, as they are more prevalent in climates that are moderate in temperature and somewhat dry. Too much humidity can contribute to fungal diseases, which poppies are vulnerable to. If you are planting your poppies in a humid climate, ensure they are in a position to receive adequate airflow.
Young poppy plants benefit from regular fertilization during the first growing season.
During the first growing season, poppies need to be fertilized regularly. Beginning in early spring, give your young poppy plants a phosphorus-rich fertilizer every two weeks through the spring. Once the first growing season has ended, you only need to fertilize your poppies once yearly, at the beginning of spring.
Deadheading is optional unless you want to control their self-seeding.
Poppies are low maintenance. During the first year, they need some extra watering and fertilizing. This helps them to set down a strong root system and get established in their space.
Once established, there is very little that needs to be done to maintain these plants. They only need supplemental water in times of prolonged drought, and they don’t need to be deadheaded unless you want to prevent them from reseeding themselves. Deadheading will, however, encourage blooming.
Growing in Containers
Opt for clay pots with drainage holes instead of ceramic ones.
Poppies naturally are prone to growing in open landscapes where they can spread, but you don’t have to own a meadow to keep these plants happy. Poppies can be kept happy in containers where they will add bright pops of color to outdoor living spaces.
The most important thing to remember is that these plants need drainage. Forego ceramic pots with no drainage holes in favor of clay pots that wick water and drain freely. Use a potting medium that also drains freely, such as one amended with perlite or coarse sand.
Place your potted poppies in a sunny spot where they will get exposure for at least six hours a day. More is better; however, in summer heat, giving them some respite in the afternoon will help prolong their blooming season.
Choose a container that gives your poppies room to spread out. They will gladly take the space and reward you with an even greater number of cheerful blooms. Poppies are not suited for indoor growth, as there is rarely enough sunlight for them in this situation.
The most common and straightforward method of propagation is using seeds.
Poppy plants can be propagated by seeds or with root cuttings. Because poppies have a good germination rate and are easy to grow from seeds, that is the most common propagation method. In fact, poppies will perform this task independently if left to go to seed.
Poppies form seed pods that, if left intact, will rupture in the fall, spreading their seeds on the ground. If you allow this, the seeds will germinate in spring, and your plants will have done most of the work for you.
You can help your poppies, especially if you want to plant the seeds in different locations. Allowing the seed pod to dry but not break open, you can pluck the heads off the stems, pop the top off, and plant them wherever you choose.
Poppies are vulnerable to some diseases, and attention should be paid to managing and preventing these. There are few, but not an absence of pests that like these plants, and there are also a few environmental issues that could crop up.
Lack of Flowers
To ensure your poppies bloom well, make sure they get enough sun.
Poppies are sun worshippers. They require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily to reach peak blooming potential. If your poppies are not blooming, observe and ensure they are getting adequate sun exposure.
If your poppies are not flowering, consider moving them to a sunnier location. Deadheading regularly will also encourage more blooms and a longer flowering season.
Over or underwatering is the common cause of wilted poppies.
Wilting can mean one of two things, and determining between the two should be fairly simple. Wilted poppies are most often the product of over or underwatering. Poppies are somewhat drought-tolerant, but there is a limit to their drought tolerance. Even your established poppies may need occasional supplemental watering in times of little rain.
Overwatering can also be an issue for these plants. Waterlogged soil can result in root rot, which eventually affects the rest of the plant. Yellowing stems that are floppy and wilted flowers may be a sign of overwatering.
To prevent overcrowding, make sure to thin out your poppies regularly.
This can also be a sign of overwatering. Root rot causes stems to become weak and flop over. Overcrowding is another issue with poppies that causes this issue. Give your poppies space by thinning them out yearly to avoid overcrowding.
Poppies are relatively resistant to pests, but aphids and thrips can pose problems.
Poppies are not especially vulnerable to pests, but thrips and aphids can be an issue. Aphids (pictured above) are small green, yellow, or brown insects that suck the sap from plants and leave behind a sticky excrement that can play host to sooty mold. Thrips are small flying insects that have a similar effect.
Both pests can be dealt with using horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps, although it’s best to keep the oils or insecticidal soap to the foliage and not the flowers. Adding more beneficial predatory insects, like ladybugs or mantids, can help to control the populations of harmful insects naturally.
Refrain from watering poppies from above and water them only in the morning.
The most common diseases to affect poppies are those that result from overwatering and poor air circulation. Several types of mold and mildew can affect poppies if they are overwatered or overcrowded, leading to trapped moisture. Avoid watering your poppies from overhead, and only water in the morning to help avoid these issues.
American Legion Corn Poppy
This variety features striking red petals with prominent wrinkles and a dark greenish-black center.
The American Legion corn poppy, also known as the field poppy, is a stunning red species with large, corrugated petals and a deep greenish-black center. These poppies have come to be known as an international symbol of remembrance and are commonly planted in memorial gardens.
Mikado California Poppy
Planting them in large numbers can create a captivating and dramatic landscape display.
Eschscholzia californica ‘Mikado’
This variety of California poppy is a stunningly brilliant orange poppy with a bright yellow center. A mass planting of these plants can be a wonderfully dramatic landscape display. Give them plenty of room to spread for a spectacular explosion of color from spring until the first frost hits.
These flowers are not only attractive to pollinators but also perfect for floral arrangements.
Papaver somniferum ‘Black Swan’
This variety of breadseed poppy is known for its exceptionally dark red flowers. These flowers are highly decorative and large, with finely cut, double petals that create a stunning effect. These flowers are highly attractive to pollinators and make wonderful cut flowers.
These opium poppies feature medium-sized flowers in a deep grape purple shade with pale yellow centers.
Papaver somniferum ‘Lauren’s Grape’
Lauren’s Grape is another beautiful variety of breadseed poppy cultivated in Colorado by garden writer and horticulturist Lauren Springer. The flowers are medium-sized and deep grape purple with pale yellow centers. These also make very nice cut flowers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Papaver somniferum, called opium poppies or breadseed poppies, can be grown in the United States for ornamental and culinary purposes only. They are grown in India, Turkey, and Australia for medicinal use.
Not all poppy seeds are edible. The seeds from Papaver somniferum are those most commonly used as a seasoning and to extract oil from for culinary use.
Poppies begin blooming in late spring, and many types bloom until the first frost, although in very warm climates, they will enter a brief summer dormancy when blooming will decrease.
They are perennials in their native climates, which differ between species. In specific zones, poppies are perennials, while they are commonly grown as annuals outside of these zones.
Poppies are low-maintenance and easy-to-grow plants with low care needs. They make a dramatic statement in the garden where they will quickly establish and colonize if allowed to go to seed. Planting these wonderful flowering plants in your garden will bring plenty of enjoyment and satisfaction.