Most everybody is familiar with poppy plants, correct? They're hardly one of those great but unknown plants that the average person has never heard of. Many of you have probably grown at least one kind at some point in your life. Maybe you're even lucky enough to have a meadow in which one of the easy-to-grow types simply reseeds itself year after year, relieving you of any responsibility. All of which may convince you that you already know all there is to know about poppies.
Sorry, but... I'm here to burst your bubble. All but the most experienced of gardeners will marvel at the variety that is to be encountered below in my short list of poppy plants. But of greater interest to true beginners, perhaps, will be my introduction to some easy-to-grow poppies. Why frustrate yourself prematurely with a hard-to-grow type, right? There will be plenty of time for that once you've gotten your feet wet as a poppy grower.
01 of 07
Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) are easy to grow in the North. Click the picture for a full article explaining what they are and how to grow them.
I grow several all over my landscape which return year after year with little care on my part. In addition to the common orange-colored kind featured in my image, I am also currently growing these cultivars:
- 'Livermere': blood-red flowers
- 'Princess Victoria Louise': salmon-pink flowers
While people typically grow Oriental poppies for... their magnificent blooms, their feathery foliage is also attractive. The leaves disappear in summer as the plant goes dormant, but then a new set of basal leaves emerges in the fall. These leaves will overwinter, affording your landscape a bit of winter interest (in areas that receive only light snowfall).
Those of us who garden in cold climates are frequently envious of our compatriots who garden where winters wreak less havoc. The latter can grow all sorts of wonderful plants that we cannot. However, the tables are turned when it comes to Oriental poppies. They are generally too hard to grow in climates warmer than the northerly parts of planting zone 7.
02 of 07
Himalayan poppies (Meconopsis grandis) qualify as poppies by family, not by genus (you will see other examples of this below). That is, they are not of the same genus (namely, Papaver) as the plants that usually come to mind when mention is made of "poppies," but they do belong to the broader poppy family (Papaveraceae).
These poppy plants are native to the Himalaya Mountains. They require constant moisture (but detest having wet feet), as well as moderate temperatures in both summer and... winter (not too hot, not too cold). That is why they are considered hard to grow. In this sense, they are "Goldilocks" plants, a term I have also used to describe golden chain trees. But of the two, these beautiful blue poppies are harder to grow.
Beth Chatto, gardening in East Anglia (a relatively dry region for Great Britain), gave up on growing Meconopsis grandis and similar species, observing that they "come from woods and shrubby places in the Himalayas, shrouded in mist, high up on the cloud layers" (, p.9). Unable to match such growing conditions, she wisely called it quits.
If you still wish to try growing these blue poppies, despite the daunting hard-to-grow label, here are the basic growing requirements:
- Planting zones 5-7.
- Dappled shade.
- A well-drained soil kept evenly moist.
- In terms of soil pH, lean toward the slightly acidic, if anything.
Himalayan poppies measure 24-36 inches tall at maturity, with a 12-24 inch spread. The delightful flowers can measure 4-5 inches across.
I have had no success in growing them, myself. The Himalayan poppies with which I am most familiar are those growing in the Thuya Garden, in Northeast Harbor, a town along the coast of Maine near Bar Harbor (U.S.). I have made annual pilgrimages to Thuya Garden for years now, a public garden created by landscape designer, Charles K. Savage. This garden is located atop a steep hill just a short walk away from the Atlantic. It is thus the recipient of mists blowing in from the ocean, from which the Himalayan poppies profit.
03 of 07
Have you ever fallen into the trap of purchasing and planting a perennial based on how good it looks, only to find out -- once it is too late -- that it is an invasive plant? That is what happens, my friends, when you fail to do your plant-selection homework before buying. As I illustrate in my photo gallery of invasive plants, many a "beautiful barbarian" has been introduced into the landscape over the years, a lovely but dangerous plant that ends up being your garden's undoing.
Plume... poppy (Macleaya cordata) is such a plant. It is easy to grow. But this is a case of a poppy being too easy to grow, to the point of becoming weedy. One does, nonetheless, have to admit their beauty, especially the beauty of their leaves. In fact, I consider plume poppy an outdoor foliage plant, despite the fact that the "plume" in the common name refers to the plumes of flowers they produce (which I find only moderately attractive).
04 of 07
Greater Celandine: Weed in Poppy Family
While plume poppy can become "weedy" due to its invasive nature (in North America), greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) is generally regarded as a weed, pure and simple. It is another plant invasive in North America, commonly found growing along roadsides.
You are particularly likely to become aware of its presence in spring. Why? Because this is a biennial. It grows just leaves its first year, and those leaves stay green all winter and right on into the spring. So while the ground in... early spring may be relatively bare along roadsides, because most of the wild plants have not come up yet, any stretch of land containing greater celandine will not be bare. Even though greater celandine is just a weed, it is hard for the winter-weary not to find a certain comfort in seeing something green at this time of year.
If you have assumed that, since there is a greater celandine, then there must also be a lesser celandine, then you are correct. But lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) is in the buttercup family, not the poppy family. It is a bit of a marsh marigold look-alike and quite invasive in North America.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
Annuals: Flanders and Opium Poppies
A few types of poppies are either annuals or treated as if they were annuals. Some, however, will reseed -- a major selling point for those seeking easy-to-grow poppies.
Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas), which I show in the picture at left, and the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) are annual plants. Another popular annual, derived from the Flanders poppy, is the Shirley poppy. All three are easy to grow, often reseeding prolifically.
If you garden in the South and have found it too hard to grow... perennial poppies, try switching over to Flanders poppy. Folks in your region report success by sowing the seeds of annual poppies in fall or winter.
The Flanders poppy, native to a wide geographical swath in the Old World, became widely known even to the non-gardening public due to Canadian, John McCrae's 1915 poem, In Flanders Fields. The poem was a reaction to the horrors of World War I. To this day, Canadians wear poppies on Remembrance Day, November 11 (the equivalent is Veterans' Day in the U.S., where people also traditionally wore Flanders poppies for Memorial Day, the last Monday in May).
As for the opium poppy, it is native to Turkey. North Carolina State University states that the flowers of the opium poppy come in white, pink, red, and purple. But is it legal to grow a plant with such a seedy reputation?
Well, according to Kimberly Willis, growing opium poppies is illegal in the U.S., even if you are growing them only for ornamental purposes. This is understandable, I suppose, considering that such notorious drugs as heroin are, in fact, produced from opium poppies. Willis goes on to state that, unfortunately, this ban extends to the dazzling Papaver paeoniflorum, the double-flowered version of the opium poppy.
06 of 07
Iceland Poppies: Perennials Often Treated as Annuals
Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule) comes in a number of bright colors. Besides the yellow shown in my photo, they also come in:
Although technically perennials, they are intolerant of heat and "will not make it through summers in about seventy percent" of the United States, according to Allan Armitage (Armitage's Garden Perennials, p.234). For this reason, many gardeners grow them as if they were annuals.
07 of 07
Bloodroot: Poppy Family Member Native to Eastern North America
With all this talk of poppy flowers native to distant lands and of members of the poppy family that are invasive in North America, a New Englander such as myself may well wonder, "Are there any kinds of poppies that are native to eastern North America?" Well, you're looking at one in the picture I present here (it is in the poppy family, but not in the Papaver genus). This plant is bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), and it is one of my favorite natives to seek out annually on my... spring walks through the woods. Click the picture to learn more.
I discuss plants native to eastern North America in greater detail in the following resources: