As we think ahead to warmer weather many gardeners will be looking forward to
the opening of some of the brighter blooms that herald high
summer in our gardens, especially the beguiling poppies.
Poppies of all kinds flower from June onwards and dazzle us
with their bright
silky petals – some of them ephemeral flowers that last just
one day. There are poppies of many kinds that are easy to
cultivate in gardens and only a few are the bright lipstick
red of our wild natives. Others varieties occur in subtle
shades of pink and mauve, bright yellow and orange or pure
white. There is a poppy for every garden colour scheme
and now is the time to sow seeds.
Poppies are wildlife-friendly plants too, having abundant,
accessible pollen for bees, hoverflies, and other pollen
dependant insects, so we can grow these flamboyant beauties in
the knowledge that they will be encouraging wildlife to our
gardens. Butterflies are not attracted to poppies however, as
they do not produce nectar in any quantity, nor do they have a
flower structure that allows nectar to collect.
Poppies come in all types – annuals, biennials and perennials
– which means there is likely to be something suitable for
anywhere in the garden. Our own native red poppies fall into
the annual category and there are four separate species,
although to the untrained eye they look very similar. Common
or corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is the species we are mostly
familiar with, a stunning plant that sometimes appears in
abundance in cornfields in mid summer, creating swathes of
bright red throughout cultivated fields. The other native
species – long headed poppy, rough poppy and prickly poppy -
differ from the common species mainly in the shape and form of
their seed heads. These species look at their best in wilder
areas of the garden, especially when combined with flowers of
contrasting colours such as cornflowers or corn marigolds, or
perhaps the garden annuals larkspur or white snapdragon.
Beautiful as the common poppy may be, it has spawned offspring
that to my mind are even more attractive in the right garden
setting. The Shirley poppies, developed in 1880s by the
Reverend W Wilkes, and named after his parish of Shirley, are
our own wild corn poppies in a variety of shades and forms.
These single and semi double flowers come in a range of
colours from white and pale pink to dark pink, mauve and even
smoky grey. In my garden a favourite variety of the Shirley
poppy is Mother of Pearl which appears in soft subtle colours,
popping up every spring in unexpected places. Although some
are double petalled, the pollen is still accessible to
There are other plants in this annual group and the opium
poppy (Papaver somniferum) is well known to most gardeners.
This is another plant that springs up unexpectedly from long
buried seed and can take many forms from single petalled
varieties to densely double ‘peony-flowered’. As long as the
anthers are visible and the pollen accessible, these plants,
like their native cousins, are excellent for bumblebees.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is another
familiar member of the poppy family. Again it is widely grown
by wildlife gardeners for its ability to provide pollen for
bees and hoverflies. It is perfect for including in a
vegetable garden as an insect attractant, as its bright orange
flowers complement the rich variety of greens of leafy crops
and salad vegetables. If the bright orange is too much for
you, you could try some of the more subtly coloured varieties
such as the Ballerina series, which come in a range of pink,
white and yellow.
A few members of the poppy family are biennials or short-lived
perennials. These include both the Iceland and alpine
poppies, which have delicate flowers in shades of yellow,
orange and white. These plants are especially suitable for
rock gardens, the alpine types growing to only 15 or 20 cms
while the Iceland poppies reach about 30 cms.
Of the perennial poppies the most familiar is the flamboyant
oriental poppy, Papaver orientale. This is a wonderful plant
if you like your flowers with blowsy blooms and a distinct
lack of delicacy! And yet in spite of their rather vulgar
nature, the flower petals are gorgeously silky, and the flower
buds have a charm of their own. These beauties come in named
varieties, the best known perhaps being Perry’s White, which
has satiny white flowers with dark purple centres, and Mrs
Perry which has large salmon pink flowers. In spite of their
over-blown appearance, these plants are still wildlife
friendly producing copious amounts of pollen.
Another attractive perennial and a favourite in my garden is our native Welsh poppy, a
member of the Meconopsis genus. This plant is no trouble,
seeding gently into gravel paths or well drained soil where
little else will establish with ease. Its lemon yellow
flowers or orange flowers brighten any corner and unlike many other poppies, it
does not object to a little light shade. It is robust and
upright, the flowers emerging from a small tuft of light green
leaves. There are other colour forms including red
and double flowered varieties in cultivation, but the native
is the most attractive to insects.
Meconopsis of course includes the stunning blue poppies, often
called the Himalayan poppies. These are rather more of a
specialist plant requiring exacting conditions - shade and a
good humus-rich neutral or acidic soil. The difficulties of
raising and cultivating them is well worth it of course for
the stunning sky blue flowers, but some species are short
lived and other are monocarpic which means they die immediately after
flowering. Of all the poppies mentioned, these are the most
difficult to grow and for me, one of the attractions of the
other species is the ease with which they can be sown, and
continue to self-sow with abandon.
With such a wealth of variety in just one group there must be
something for everyone amongst the poppy family. With annuals
and perennials in colours ranging from bright orange to soft
mauve, we can all find something to brighten up the summer
amongst these versatile wildlife friendly plants.
Propagation of poppies from seed and cuttings
Annual and biennial poppies, including our native wildflowers,
are best sown from seed directly where they are to flower in
March or April.
Most poppies have tap roots and are not easy to move once
established. The wild corn poppy, its cousins the Shirley
poppies and the opium poppies all require some light for the
seed to germinate. Sow thinly onto well cultivated weed free
soil and then firm the seed into the soil with the flat of the
hand or walk over larger areas, pressing the seed gently into
the soil. Once established, these species will self-seed,
especially where the soil is regularly cultivated. Turning
the soil with fork or spade brings buried seed to the surface,
allowing germination to occur. Some poppy seeds require
a period of cold weather in order to germinate well.
The perennial varieties, especially the oriental poppies, may
be sown into small pots or seed trays in March and pricked
out when large enough to handle. The oriental poppies can
also be propagated from root cuttings. Some species of the
blue poppies can be divided after flowering.