By Melanie Mathieson,
The Gardening Guru
The types of poppies you may be most familiar with are the annual types, which include the peony poppy (Papaver paeoniflorum) and the Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas).
These varieties come in many colours, and have been a common garden plant in our area dating back to your great-grandmother’s day.
These varieties of poppies often are mistaken as perennial plants because they self-seed each fall (if the seed pods are left intact) and create new flowering plants the following year.
As such, many gardeners think they are perennials but they are not. They are truly annual flowers in our area.
The Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), on the other hand, is a true perennial plant in our zone—and a gardener’s delight.
This species is a hardy perennial plant that profusely blooms with large flowers ranging from white, pink, light plum, and orange-red to dark red (depending on the variety) and there are many available.
A signature of this species and all of its varieties are the dark-coloured, often black centres.
When purchasing this type of poppy, always make sure the label reads Papaver orientale and then the variety name. For example, Papaver orientale “Central Park” or “King Kong” or “Royal Wedding” are just some of the common varieties you may come across.
You may be very disappointed to learn that is not the poppy which produces opium. That is a different variety altogether (papaver somniferum).
Unfortunately, perennial poppies have a brief flowering period. But when in bloom, they produce a very showy display.
The blooms can reach sizes of up to six inches across, and the flower petals appear silky but also are sometimes crinkly. There are many blooms on each plant that produce their flowers in a succession.
The flowering period after the pant is well-established lasts about three weeks.
The mid-green coloured, jagged-edged foliage remains close to the ground and is very dense with fine hairs. The leaves are up to 12 inches in length and roughly six inches in width. The lower leaves almost resemble thistles, especially when they first emerge in the very early spring, but make sure you do not pull them out.
Long hairy stems up to 24 inches rise above the foliage to produce the showy flowers.
The Oriental poppy is easy to grow as it likes well-drained soil in a location with full sun. They like deep soil that does not remain wet at any time of the year.
It is best to plant in the spring if you want flowers the same year. But if you find some bargains in August marked down at the nursery, you can plant them then.
It is best to space the plants two-three feet apart if you are planting more than one. It will look sparse at first, but they will be growing together in no time.
Prepare the garden soil by loosening it to a depth of 12-15 inches, then mix in a two- to four-inch layer of compost or manure. Dig a hole twice the diameter of the pot the plant is in.
Carefully remove the plant from its container and place it in the hole so the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. Then carefully fill in around the root ball and firm the soil gently. Water thoroughly.
Although not classified as a drought-tolerant species, I have seen them thrive in very dry soils.
In some gardens in our area, the first leaves of the Oriental poppy will outgrow our spring bulbs, often starting to grow under the last of the snow in early spring. The flowers then will appear in late spring to very early summer in our area.
Don’t panic when once done blooming, in the dry hot spells of mid-summer, the leaves die off. This is normal—just trim away the leaves once they have turned completely brown.
This is a good time to fill in with some annuals or plan another perennial like fall mums in the same area.
Continue to water the garden as usual, but leave the roots alone as they seem to enjoy a thorough baking during the hottest and driest months of the season.
When the rains begin coming in late August and early September, the roots will show signs of growth and the plant will leaf out in full again. These leaves often will last until the first winter snows.
Sometimes, but not always, a few blooms may appear again.
You can mulch the plants with some peat moss or manure in the late fall. Then in the spring, the new leaves will grow right through the mulch.
I do not mulch my plants in the fall; I just trim any brown foliage and fertilize with a good quality granular or powder fertilizer with a high phosphorus content (i..e.,10-20-10 or 10-30-10).
In all of the gardening books, the message is the same: Oriental poppies do not tolerate being dug up or separated once established. They develop a long tap root that does not like to be disturbed.
I have to admit that over the years after the foliage has died back in the mid-summer, I have dug up some of my extra plants to share with friends and most of them have survived.
Last year, for instance, I dug up about eight plants to move with me to Thunder Bay and all of them survived and flowered in a large mass this spring.
Despite my success in moving them, I’m still going to advise that be sure where you want your poppies situated when you plant them because they should be allowed to remain undisturbed in order to get the best blooms and longevity out of your plant.
Poppies make lovely cut flowers but unless care is exercised in cutting them, the petals will drop and they will not last at all. The flower should be cut early in the morning when the buds are tight, allowing them to open up once in the water.
Sear the cut end with a flame before placing in water. If cut at the right time and seared immediately, they will last several days.
They will last longer if the calyx (sepals) is removed once the flower begins to open (the calyx is the green covering over the flower petals before the flower opens).
On the Oriental poppy, they are hairy like the leaves.
The Oriental poppy is probably my second-favourite flower in my garden next to all my varieties of irises. In fact, I’m trying to build a collection of all of the different colours (I have a couple of different shades of red, a pink, and a moron colour).
Unfortunately, my pink one got overlooked in the move to Thunder Bay.
I cannot tell you how pleased I am that they do as well in Thunder Bay (Zone 3) as they did in Fort Frances (Zone 4), so there is no reason not to try them. You can find them at your local nurseries or through mail-order ones.
If you are not yet sold on this plant, perhaps the fact that this is one of the most deer-resistant plants that will grow in our zone may tempt you to give the Oriental poppy a try.