Oriental Poppy Plant Profile

oriental poppy

 The Spruce / Leticia Almeida 

The flowers of oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) are fascinating, whether in bud or in bloom. There are close to 100 species of poppies; some are annuals or biennials, and others, such as the Oriental poppies, are perennial. Most of the Oriental poppy selections on sale today are hybrids. Hybridizing Oriental poppies started accidentally, when a British nurseryman, Amos Perry, happened to spot a salmon-pink flower sitting in the middle of his red poppies. He cultivated it and brought it to market as 'Mrs. Perry'.

The most common Oriental poppy is still bright red with a black center. But the varieties keep expanding, with new colors, flowers with pinked edges or fluffy petals, and more compact plants that don’t flop over. Both the leaves and stems of oriental poppies are rough and bristly. The oblong leaves are deeply lobed and up to 12 inches long. Each flower has four to six petals that are 2 to 6 inches across. Many have a central dark splotch and dark stamens. Colors range from soft pastels to flashy brights and neons. Mature height depends on the variety you are growing. Most Oriental poppies reach somewhere between 3 to 4 feet tall, with a spread of 1 to 2 feet. However, there are several compact varieties that only reach 2 feet in height.

Botanical Name Papaver orientale
Common Name Oriental poppy
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 2 to 3 feet tall on average
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Rich, medium moisture, well-draining
Soil pH 6.5 to 7
Bloom Time Late spring to early summer
Flower Color Pink, red, orange, purple, white
Hardiness Zones 3 to 7
Native Area Caucasus region, Turkey, Iran
white poppy flower
The Spruce / Leticia Almeida 
orange-pink poppy flower
 The Spruce / Leticia Almeida 
white poppy flower
 The Spruce / Leticia Almeida 

How to Grow Oriental Poppies

Because Oriental poppies have a tap root, they don’t divide easily. To avoid disturbance, potted plants should be planted in their final growing spot. If you purchase bare-root plants, make sure the hole is deep enough to accommodate the root and that the crown will be 3 inches below the soil surface. If Oriental poppies are planted shallow, they can rot.

The bloom period for Oriental poppies is brief, but exquisite, in early summer. Some varieties will only stay in bloom one day, though with enough buds you should get at least three days of bloom. To extend the season, plant multiple varieties that bloom at different times. In their defense, the plants are interesting even before the flowers “pop” open, with their fuzzy, plumping flower bud.

Poppies pretty much take care of themselves. Once the flowers have faded, the foliage goes downhill quickly and unattractively. The plants are ephemeral and eventually go dormant and disappear for the summer. Feel free to cut them back sooner than that if you can no longer stand the sight. They will regrow in the fall to gain strength for next year’s blooms.

Tall varieties have a great tendency to flop over. Planting them among bushier plants that they can lean on will keep them upright. Winter mulching will help protect the roots and crown from rotting.

Light

For the best flowers, give your Oriental poppies a full day of sun. They will bloom less profusely in partial shade.

Soil

Oriental poppies need a well-draining soil. Their fleshy tap roots and crowns will rot in the damp soil. Wet winters can be a particular problem if the ground stays wet rather than freezing solid.

Water

Once established, Oriental poppies are somewhat drought resistant, but they do best with regular water. An inch a week should do it.

Temperature and Humidity

Oriental poppies are often considered cool climate flowers. They do not thrive in extreme heat or humidity, which makes them difficult to grow in the U.S. South and in hardiness zones higher than 7.

Fertilizer

Give the plants a side dressing of compost or a light dose of balanced fertilizer in the spring.

Growing From Seeds

The easiest way to start poppies is from seed. Direct sow early in the season. The seeds need light to germinate, so simply scatter the seed on prepared soil and firm it down lightly.

Propagating Oriental Poppies

These plants are easily propagated through division. Crowded plantings may need division every five years or so. The best time to divide is when the plants are dormant, in late summer, if you can find them, however, the taproot makes division tricky.

Dig down deep, so that you get the entire clump and lift the mass of long, thin, carrot-like roots. To divide, use a knife to get through the roots, making sure each division has some taproot, some stem, and at least one eye. Re-plant immediately and remember to plant them about 3 inches below the soil surface.

Common Pests and Diseases

Insects don’t seem to care for Oriental poppies. Maybe they aren’t around long enough for the insects to find them.

Fungal diseases and rotting can be a problem during a wet season. You can use a fungicide if necessary.

Varieties of Oriental Poppies

It’s hard to find a bad selection of Oriental poppies, with their crepe paper petals and saturated colors. Some good performers include:

  • 'Black and White': Aptly, if unimaginatively named, with clear white petals and a black center
  • 'Goliath' (aka 'Beauty of Livermere'): 4 feet tall with huge dark red blooms
  • 'John III': Compact, 2-foot-tall plant with lots of cheerful red flowers
  • 'Mrs. Perry': Salmon pink flowers
  • 'Watermelon': Neon pink and 24 to 30 inches tall