A love affair with poppies

I am very partial to poppies. At least to some of them. My mother was an Iceland poppy fan. While she was an accomplished gardener, I doubt that she ever deliberately grew an annual in her life and the Iceland poppies (papaver nudicaule – from the Arctic regions) were the only flower I ever remember her buying in bunches. From memory, they are a cut flower that you buy in the bud stage, burn the stems and then they open in the vase.

I don’t wish to be disloyal to my mother but I don’t share her fondness for the Iceland poppies – the predominance of orange, salmon and yellow colours don’t do it for me. It is the corn poppies and the Himalayan poppies that are bringing me pleasure at this time.

The corn poppy or soldier poppy (papaver rhoeas) is one of my favourites. It is of course the simple red poppy adopted as an emblem of Anzac where it was the first vegetation to appear on the battle fields and graves. It grows widely throughout the northern temperate areas and is a true annual wildflower. I first saw it in all its glory one summer in England, growing (as it should) at the edges of fields of crops. The friends who were driving me around were greatly amused at my wanting to take photographs of it. But I will never forget seeing it on the margins of the soft hazy blue fields of linen flax in flower through Yorkshire, or the garish combination with the many fields of acid yellow rape.

I grow the soldier poppy in the garden. It is a somewhat leggy plant, prone to falling over and rather rampant if left to its own devices but grown in combination with blue cornflowers and yellow roses, I enjoy the splash of colour in late spring and early summer. As the plants start to look past their best, I rip all but a couple out, ensuring enough seed is set to continue as a self sown seedling next year. Easy peasy as Jo Seagar would say.

It is the meconopsis or Himalayan poppy of which we are most proud. In cold climates, these can be left to their own devices and they will seed down and naturalise. I haven’t been to Dunedin Botanic Gardens for some years but I imagine they are still present on the sunny slopes of the upper gardens. It may be possible to naturalise them in open inland conditions with cold winters in Taranaki but there is no way our coastal areas bear any resemblance to Nepal and Tibet. So they are a challenge to establish and a triumph if you succeed.

So why bother? Because they have the clearest and simplest flower in pure blues and whites and they are just beautiful. Their foliage is somewhat hairy and consists of neat rosettes at ground level with flower spikes around 60cm tall shooting up in spring. We have never succeeded in getting them to naturalise here. Meconopsis betonicifolia is the usual blue poppy and it dies after flowering so in our climate it has to be treated like an annual or biennial with seed collected after flowering to be sown in trays and carefully nurtured through. The recommendation is to stop it flowering in its first season (or it will then die) to allow it to get established and then let it display its glory in the second spring. You get many more flowers from one plant that way. It does, by the way, go underground in winter to reappear with fresh foliage for the second spring. The trouble is that even if you have beheaded it to prevent flowering in its first summer, many of the plants will hibernate for winter and fail to reappear at all the next spring.

Mark has repeated the sheldonii cross (betonicifolia x grandis) to get hybrids which are better suited to our mild conditions and to get more of the perennial characteristics in them. So far so good. They are a great deal more reliable than straight betonicifolia but we are still raising seeds through the nursery system to get plants for the garden. The flowering plants in the garden have shown no signs of naturalising yet and the plants are not clumping sufficiently to allow for divisions. So we don’t have enough for the sea of pure blue poppies which we covet. It is more a case of few flowers here and a few there.

The oriental poppies are the easiest to grow in our mild conditions but these are the ones we generally weed out at the early stage. Only because we open the garden to the public and the oriental poppies are of course the opium poppies and they can attract entirely the wrong sort of garden visitor. Mark and I both recall two young women talking their way past his late father to look at the garden in summer. While one later engaged him in conversation, the other stole the poppy plants. To her embarrassment, she was intercepted by super sleuth Mark as she headed out to their vehicle with the plants. It was not a happy experience and we resolved then that we could garden without the oriental poppies.

All of which is a pity because they are so easy to grow if you have the space and they have attractive lush greyed foliage and masses of large flowers. I particularly regret not having the doubles in soft smoky pink and some of the very dark burgundy colours. In a mixed sunny border or grown with roses, they can be a real feature. In a warmer and wetter climate where the herbaceous paeonies defeat pretty well everybody, the oriental poppies can give a similar abundance of hugely excessive big blowsy flowers in very pretty colours.

I guess our two daughters should be grateful not to have been named Poppy Jury.