Oriental Poppy Plant Profile

How to Grow One of the World's Most Lovely Plants

Oriental poppy flowers.
David Beaulieu

Oriental poppies are grown mainly for their flowers, although they also bear attractive foliage in spring. They are just one of the various types of poppies, a group of plants known for its contributions in the areas of crafts, medicine, food, and landscaping.

  • Botanical Name: Papaver orientale
  • Common Name: Oriental poppy
  • Plant TypeHerbaceous, with a perennial life cycle
  • Mature Size: 3 feet tall when in bloom; width about 2 feet
  • Sun ExposureFull sun
  • Soil Type: Fertile, well-drained, with average moisture
  • Soil pH: Neutral
  • Bloom Time: May and/or June
  • Flower Color: Orange, red, pink, purple, white, peach, and maroon
  • Hardiness Zones: 3 to 7
  • Native Area: West Asia

Other Characteristics of Oriental Poppy Flowers

Three traits account for the beauty of the blooms of Oriental poppies:

  • Their size (about 4 inches)
  • Their bright colors (especially the orange types)
  • Their texture, which invites comparisons with crepe paper

The most commonly found Oriental poppy flowers are orange (for example, Prince of Orange), and the next most popular color is red (for example, Livermere). But many cultivars exist, offering a variety of colors. The blossom petals usually sport a dark blotch at their base. The large buds nod down at first, but they raise their heads as the flowers unfurl. 

The big, thistle-like leaves are downy, deeply-lobed, and rich green in color, offering aesthetic value in their own right. The leaves are tightly packed. This is a clump-forming plant. Flower stems are stiff and hairy, making Oriental poppy a good cut flower. The pods that succeed the flowers also have an ornamental quality and are dried for crafts. But the above-ground growth dies back in summer, when the plant goes dormant. This can leave gaps in your planting bed.

Light

Give your Oriental poppies full sun. Not only will this promote better flowering, but it will also reduce the chances of a powdery mildew infestation, which is a potential problem with these plants.

Soil

Grow Oriental poppy in a well-drained soil enriched with compost. Root rot can occur in soil that does not drain well.

Water

Water when the soil is dry, but do not overwater. This is a plant that dislikes having "wet feet."

Fertilizer

Use a slow-release fertilizer in spring. Alternatively, fertilize with manure tea.

Toxicity

You have probably bought foods that have poppy seeds, causing you to wonder if you could harvest the seeds from your own Oriental poppies and reproduce that flavor. But the poppy seeds used in cuisine typically come from opium poppy plants (Papaver somniferum). The seeds of your P. orientale may or may not be edible, but don't expect them to taste like the poppy seeds you enjoy on that favorite bagel at the coffee shop.

Always exercise caution in regard to ingesting anything you're not sure about. Study up on the plant in question or consult an expert. In your research, also consider the fact that people aren't always referring to the same plant that you think they're referring to. For example, in this case, people sometimes refer to opium poppy plants, too, as "Oriental poppies," even though P. somniferum and P. orientale are two distinct species.

Poppy seeds aside, all other parts of the plant are definitely poisonous (which is why they're deer-proof plants), so you should be cautious about growing Oriental poppies in your yard if there is a chance that children or pets will eat them.

More Care Tips for Oriental Poppy Flowers

Indigenous to elevated lands in western Asia, Oriental poppy has naturalized in parts of North America that have cold winters. A cold-hardy plant that dislikes high heat and humidity, this perennial needs cold temperatures in winter and, consequently, fares poorly for the most part south of planting zone 7.

Apply mulch around Oriental poppies for the first couple of years for winter protection. Propagate by seed rather than by transplanting (the clumps like to be left alone). Some growers stake the plants, especially in areas subject to high winds.

Uses in Landscaping

These plants are a classic for cottage gardens. But regardless of your garden design style, place them somewhere where you can fully appreciate them during their blooming period because Oriental poppy flowers provide a spectacular, albeit brief show. If you are thinking in terms of sequence of bloom when planning a garden, grow them near a plant that reserves its best display for later in the summer. The latter will fill the gaps after your Oriental poppies have disappeared.

Other Types

Besides Papaver orientale, perhaps the best-known species are the Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule), corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas; also called "Flanders poppies" or "field poppies"), and opium poppies (Papaver somniferum; the somniferum means "sleep-inducing" in Latin, a reference to the plant's narcotic properties).