Poppy Plants: Types Hard to Grow, Easy to Grow, and Too Easy to Grow

Perennials, Annuals, and a Biennial Weed

Shirley poppies massed together in a mixed flower bed.
Shirley poppies are annuals. David Beaulieu

Poppy plants are familiar to us. Many gardeners have grown at least one kind. Maybe you're even lucky enough to have a meadow where one of the easy-to-grow types reseeds itself yearly, relieving you of any responsibility.

Their familiarity aside, you probably don't know all there is to know about poppies. Their variety is astounding. Beginning gardeners will be most pleased to learn about the easy-to-grow ​kinds of poppies. 

  • 01 of 08
    Oriental poppy flowers.
    David Beaulieu

    Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) are easy to grow in the North. In addition to the common orange-colored kind, cultivars include:

    1. Beauty of Livermere: blood-red
    2. Princess Victoria Louise: salmon-pink

    Beauty of Livermere (USDA zones 3 to 7) is 2 to 3 feet tall, with a spread of up to 2 feet. Princess Victoria Louise (zones 2 to 9) stands about 30 inches tall, with a spread of about 20 inches. Grow both in full sun. Both bloom by early June in zone 5.

    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 winter interest (in areas that receive only light snowfall).

    Those who garden in cold climates are frequently envious of their compatriots who garden where winters are milder since the latter can grow plants that can't survive in the North. However, the tables are turned when it comes to Oriental poppies. They're generally too hard to grow in climates warmer than the northerly parts of zone 7.

  • 02 of 08
    Blue flowers of Himalayan poppy.
    David Beaulieu

    Himalayan poppies (Meconopsis grandis) qualify as poppies by family (Papaveraceae) but are not of the Papaver genus.

    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's why they're considered hard to grow. 

    Beth Chatto, gardening in East Anglia (a relatively dry region for Great Britain), gave up on growing ​Meconopsis grandis, observing that they "come from woods and shrubby places in the Himalayas, shrouded in mist, high up on the cloud layers" (The Shade Garden, 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:

    1. Planting zones 5 to 7
    2. Dappled shade
    3. A well-drained soil kept evenly moist
    4. In terms of soil pH, lean toward the slightly acidic, if anything.

    Himalayan poppies measure 24 to 36 inches tall at maturity, with a spread of 12 to 24 inches. Flower size is 4 to 5 inches across.

  • 03 of 08
    Plume poppy leaf with scalloped edges.
    David Beaulieu

    Often we fall into the trap of purchasing a perennial based on how good it looks, only to find out later that it's an invasive plant. Thus the importance of plant-selection research. 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's easy to grow in zones 3 to 8. But this is a case of a poppy being too easy to grow, to the point of becoming weedy. But you must admit their beauty, especially the beauty of their leaves. Plume poppy is mainly an outdoor foliage plant, despite the fact that the "plume" in the common name refers to the plumes of flowers they produce (which are only moderately attractive).

  • 04 of 08

    Greater Celandine: Weed in Poppy Family

    Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) in bloom.
    Greater celandine bears yellow blooms. David Beaulieu

    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's another plant invasive in North America, commonly found growing along roadsides.

    You are particularly likely to become aware of its presence in spring because it's a biennial. It grows just leaves its first year, and those leaves stay green all winter and right on into 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 won't be bare. 

    Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), another yellow flower, is in the buttercup family, not the poppy family. It's a bit of a marsh marigold look-alike and quite invasive in North America.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Annuals: Flanders and Shirley Poppies

    Picture of red poppy growing wild in field.
    Flanders poppy grows wild in some regions. David Beaulieu

    A few types of poppies are either annuals or treated as if they were annuals. Some, however, will reseed, a selling point for those seeking easy-to-grow poppies.

    Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas) are annual plants. Another well-known annual, derived from the Flanders poppy, is the Shirley poppy. Both 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 annuals. Sow the seeds in fall or winter.

    The Flanders poppy, native to Eurasia, became famous due to Canadian, John McCrae's 1915 poem, In Flanders Fields, a reaction to the horrors of World War I. Canadians wear poppies on Remembrance Day, November 11, Americans on Memorial Day, the last Monday in May.

    With their greater variety, Shirley poppy is more popular for landscaping. Besides red, the flowers come in orange, pink, violet, white, and yellow. Leaves are fern-like. The plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall x 1 foot wide. Grow it in full sun.

  • 06 of 08

    Opium Poppies: Illegal

    Opium poppy seed pods.
    Lex20/Getty Images 

    Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) are annuals native to Turkey. North Carolina State University states that their flowers come in white, pink, red, and purple. But, as they also state, growing opium poppies is illegal in the U.S. The reason for this ban is that such notorious drugs as heroin are, in fact, produced from opium poppies. Growing them is illegal even if you're growing them only for ornamental purposes. Unfortunately, the ban extends to the dazzling Papaver paeoniflorum, the double-flowered version of the opium poppy. 

  • 07 of 08

    Iceland Poppies: Perennials Often Treated as Annuals

    Yellow Iceland poppy flower.
    David Beaulieu

    Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule) is hard to grow. It comes in a number of bright colors. Besides yellow, it also comes in:

    1. White
    2. Salmon
    3. Rose
    4. Pink

    Although technically a short-lived perennial (zones 2 to 9), it's 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, treat it as an annual unless you garden in the Far North. If you garden in zone 2 or 3, give it full sun. Plant size is 12 to 18 inches tall x 8 to 12 inches wide.

  • 08 of 08
    Bloodroot plant in bloom.
    David Beaulieu

    So far we've discussed poppy flowers native to distant lands and members of the poppy family that are invasive in North America. But there's also a poppy native to eastern North America (it's in the poppy family, but not in the Papaver genus). This plant is bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Bloodroot is a great choice if you're seeking a North-American native that likes shade.

Poppies Deceptively Familiar

Poppies aren't one of those great plants that the average person has never heard of. But familiarity can be deceiving. You may associate "poppy" with common plants such as the Oriental poppy, but even some weeds belong to the poppy family. Their diversity is staggering. Don't be discouraged by hard-to-grow kinds such as Himalayan and Iceland poppies. Oriental poppies are easy to grow in the North, and annual poppies provide a carefree choice almost anywhere.