The common name poppy refers to many species in at least 12 different genera. They're in the subfamily Papaveroideae, which is within the plant family Papaveraceae. Despite the confusing genetic lineage, poppy flowers are familiar to most people, recognizable by their tissue paper-like blossoms. Poppy flower colors range from white to vivid reds and oranges. There are cream, yellow, blue, and purple poppies as well.
Here are eight poppy flower varieties to know about, including ones that are easy and ones that are tricky to grow.
Most poppies are toxic to humans and pets due to their alkaloid compounds.
Symbolism of Poppies
The poppy flower is considered special because of its meaning. Specifically, the red poppy symbolizes remembrance, resilience, and peace. Many people wear poppies on remembrance days for fallen soldiers.
Poppy Growing Tips
Poppy flower seeds generally can be sown in the spring. And many types readily reseed themselves in the garden, so the poppies come back every year. Depending on the type, poppies can be annuals (dying after one growing season), perennials (coming back each year), or biennials (completing their life cycle in two growing seasons).
Poppy flower care is fairly straightforward, though it does vary slightly by type. In general, poppy flowers need lots of sun and well-draining soil. While they have some drought tolerance, watering to keep the soil lightly moist can help with flowering. You also can deadhead plants (remove the spent blooms) to encourage further flowering.
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One of the most familiar of all poppies is the Oriental poppy. This perennial garden plant is a common feature of northern gardens, with its feathery foliage and orange, red, or salmon flowers that bloom in June and July. Some popular cultivars include 'Allegro' (a dwarf form that grows to 18 inches), 'Beauty of Livermere' (blood-red flowers, growing 2 to 3 feet), 'Fatima' (white flowers edged with pink), 'Patty's Plum' (plum-pink flowers, growing to 30 inches), and 'Princess Victoria Louise' (pink flowers, growing to 36 inches).
While people typically grow Oriental poppies for their magnificent blooms, their feathery foliage is also attractive. The foliage disappears in summer as the plant goes dormant, but a new set of basal leaves emerges in the fall. These leaves will overwinter, affording winter interest in areas that receive only light snowfall.
- Native Area: Southern Eurasia
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 2–7 (depends on variety)
- Height: 20–36 inches
- Sun Exposure: Full
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Flanders Poppy, Shirley Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)
Known as the common poppy or Flanders poppy, this species grew wild on World War I battlefields, becoming a symbol of the war thanks to its mention in the famous poem "In Flanders Fields." Citizens of the United Kingdom don this bright orange-red bloom to honor Remembrance Day each Nov. 11. One of its equally well-known cultivars, the Shirley poppy, is a more popular landscape plant, available in orange, pink, violet, white, and yellow.
Although the Flanders poppy and its cultivars are annuals, they self-seed so freely that they naturalize in a manner that makes them perform as perennials. This can be a good choice for gardeners in the South who have trouble with the cold-loving perennial species. In warm climates, the seeds can be sown in fall or winter.
- Native Area: Northern Africa, Europe, Asia
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 3–10 (grown as an annual)
- Height: 9–18 inches
- Sun Exposure: Full
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Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)
Though found in the same genus as many popular garden poppies, you might want to steer clear of this one: the opium poppy, from which heroin and other opiate drugs are derived. This type of poppy has striking pink, red, purple, or white flowers; has distinctive gray-green foliage; and is taller than most poppy flowers.
Although the opium poppy is an exquisitely attractive plant, growing it is technically illegal throughout the United States. This ban also extends to Papaver paeoniflorum, the double-flowered version of the opium poppy. Most major seed retailers offer poppy seeds for sale, and few make any mention of legalities. Before growing this plant, check with local and state authorities.
- Native Area: Turkey
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 8–10 (grown as an annual)
- Height: 24–36 inches
- Sun Exposure: Full
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Not all poppies are as easy to grow as the Oriental poppy. A case in point is the Iceland poppy, also known as the Arctic poppy. This is a short-lived perennial, but it performs as a perennial only in northern climates. Elsewhere, it's usually grown as an annual, but it might not grow at all in any region with warm, humid summers.
Iceland poppy cultivars are available with bright yellow, white, salmon, rose, and pink flowers.
Continue to 5 of 8 below.
- Native Area: Arctic, subarctic
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 2–7
- Height: 12–24 inches
- Sun Exposure: Full
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Himalayan Poppy (Meconopsis grandis)
Himalayan poppies are technically poppies because their genus is within the Papaveraceae family, but they're not members of the Papaver genus that comprises most garden poppies. Although the papery blooms have that familiar poppy flower look, they're an unusual sky blue hue and are quite large—up to 5 inches across.
Make no mistake about it: These are difficult plants to grow from start to finish. The seeds can be difficult to germinate, and the plants require constant moisture (but detest being waterlogged) as well as moderate temperatures in both summer and winter (not too hot, not too cold). Unless you're able to mimic the conditions of their native Himalayan environment—woody terrain shrouded in cool mist—your chances of success are slim. If you succeed, though, you have earned notable bragging rights.
- Native Area: China
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 3–7
- Height: 3–4 feet
- Sun Exposure: Partial shade
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The plume poppy is another uncharacteristic poppy flower. Its flowers aren't the common cup shape but instead form in long panicles (plumes) of white blooms, alongside large scalloped leaves.
Rather than being beautiful and difficult to grow like the Himalayan poppy, it's less attractive and quite easy to grow—so easy, in fact, that it crosses over into the invasive category. This perennial spreads aggressively through rhizomes and self-seeding (if not deadheaded). So, for many, the plume poppy turns out to be one of those beautiful barbarians—a lovely but dangerous plant that ends up being an unwelcome plant in your garden.
- Native Area: China, Japan
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 6–8
- Height: 4–9 feet
- Sun Exposure: Full, partial
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Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus)
A common roadside poppy, the greater celandine is rarely planted deliberately. This somewhat compact biennial blooms with yellow flowers from May to August, and it self-seeds so aggressively that it can be hard to eradicate, even in a closely tended garden. Across much of the Midwest and the Northeast, it's dangerously invasive and outcompetes native species as well as being toxic.
But don't confuse this species with the lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), which is a member of the buttercup clan, not the poppy family. It looks somewhat like a marsh marigold and generally should be avoided, too, though some cultivars are bred to behave better.
- Native Area: Europe, western Asia
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 4–8
- Height: 12–24 inches
- Sun Exposure: Partial, full
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Wildflower watchers are sometimes surprised to learn that bloodroot is a member of the poppy family. This is a low-growing, stemless plant whose leaves and flower stalks emerge directly from the ground. It blooms with white flowers, sometimes tinged with pink, in early spring.
Unlike most poppies, which love the sun, this species prefers shady conditions, making it a great choice for gardeners seeking a native species for a shady location. The common name derives from the reddish-orange color of its sap when the roots are cut.
- Native Area: Eastern North America
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 3–8
- Height: 12-14 inches
- Sun Exposure: Partial, shade
Papaver somniferum. North Carolina State Extension.
Opium. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Indictment: Kansas man planted poppies in effort to manufacture heroin. United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
Celandine. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.