Poppies!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Iceland poppy in the garden of Tracey Fleischner in Sydney

I have always loved poppies and poppy-like flowers. I can remember as a young child what a thrill it was to see the hairy buds of the Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicale) spilt apart to reveal crumpled silken petals, which would smooth themselves out to form beautiful saucer-shaped blooms, atop a long thin stem and beloved by bees. There is something about the shape of the flower and the prominent stamens that I find irresistible. I also love the shape of the seed pods, which remind me of little pepper shakers. When I became a gardener, I lusted after the poppies I saw in English garden books: the almost surreal blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia), the ethereal white tree poppy (Romneya coulteri) and the sumptuous oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) with their gorgeous colours and flounces. Of course, none of these plants wanted to grow in our mild, humid Sydney climate so I was bitterly disappointed.

Papaver rhoeas, the original Flanders poppy

But about 15 years ago I discovered a substitute for these elusive blooms when I obtained a packet of seeds marked Papaver rhoeas 'Mother of Pearl'. These were a particular strain of the Shirley poppy - which were themselves cultivated forms of the original single red field or Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas) by the Reverend Wilkes in Shirley, Hampshire, UK - bred by the famous English artist and gardener Sir Cedric Morris. He apparently set out to produce a lavender-coloured Shirley poppy but he ended up with a strain of poppies with many strange and beautiful dusky hues. Renowned English gardener Beth Chatto is said to have carefully preserved and nurtured the strain in her Essex garden after Morris's death and the seeds were introduced commercially by Thompson and Morgan in 1987.

With a trembling hand, I sowed the tiny seeds from my packet directly into the ground - as is required by most poppies, which resent being transplanted. I didn't cover the seeds with any seed-raising mix as they were so fine. I chose a sunny position with fairly good, well-drained soil. Minute seedlings appeared and I kept them sheltered from heavy rain with sheets of masonite and thinned them to spacings of 15-20 cm as instructed on the packet. I pampered them and fretted over whether they would ever make it to adulthood.

Papaver rhoeas Mother of Pearl

But they grew into large, robust rosettes of apple-green leaves and flowered in October (from an April sowing), exceeding all my wildest dreams. On 25cm-high stems, they produced beautiful single translucent flowers with the texture of slightly crumpled tissue paper. They came in the most unusual shades, including dove-grey, smoky mauve, ethereal pinks, deep rich pinks, burgundy, maroon, blue grey and lavender-white. Many had a dramatic black central blotch, and some had lighter or darker rims to their petals. They flowered prolifically for four to five weeks, then they were gone, leaving only a memory of their diaphanous beauty. The next autumn, however, my garden was awash with thousands of tiny but recognisable and determined poppy seedlings. They self-seeded like this every year until this year, when, sadly, I can only find one plant. I am going to make sure I collect some seed from this one so I don't lose it completely.

Papaver rhoeas at Red Cow Farm, Southern Highlands NSW

I like all the variants of the field poppy, and enjoy seeing them naturalised in gardens. I particularly love the original red Flanders poppies. They can create a wonderful picture, such as the massed poppies seen at Red Cow Farm in the Southern Tablelands last November (picture left). They all seem to do well in our climate, because as spring annuals, they are not around to be affected by our humid summers, and unlike perennial poppies, don't need a cold winter to flower well. The red Flanders poppies have sombre overtones as well, being associated with Remembrance Day (11 November).

Eschscholzia californica in the garden of Beverley and Ron Jenkins in Sydney

I recently was given seedlings of another interesting annual poppy that self-seeds - it is a lovely clear orange colour and grows from a hairy basal rosette of foliage. I think it is possibly Papaver atlanticum (ht 45 cm) , which comes from Morocco. From the same friend's garden I received some seedlings of a pretty pink Californian poppy - which is not a member of the Papaver genus but is botanically Eschscholzia californica. I have never had much luck with these before but I have put them into a hot, dry bed and am hoping for the best.

Reader Comments

  • By Margaret 3777 Monday, 31 October 2011

    I have always loved poppies, too. The "Mother of Pearl" variety sounds lovely - I"ll have to see if I can find it. Californian poppies are doing well in my Healesville garden, but I have only the cream variety. I haven"t seen the pinky coloured one you photographed. They are beautiful.

    Thanks, Margaret. I think getting seed from other gardeners seems to be the best way of finding these poppies, but I do sometimes see them on seed displays at nurseries. Deirdre

  • By Anne 2518 Monday, 31 October 2011

    I have some very pretty poppies in shades of pink and red which I grew last year from seed and they have self sown - must keep some seeds. They sound like yours. I also have the paeony flowered ones in white and pink. My sister in law grew romneya for many years in Killara so maybe you could try it?

    Thanks, Anne. Interesting to hear about your sister-in-law"s Romneya, as I have never seen it growing in Sydney! It must have had the perfect spot in her garden. Deirdre

  • By valerie 4160 Monday, 31 October 2011

    What beautiful colours Poppies have, I have never thought of growing them, How would they fare in the Coastal area of Brisbane, with the heavy rains we have.

    They do get a bit battered by storms. I used to put a big brolley over mine when it stormed! I don"t have time for such things nowadays. Deirdre

  • By Malle 2570 Monday, 31 October 2011

    Is it possible to germinate the poppyseed that you put on cakes and bread? I love the way my californian poppies come up by themselves.

    I am not sure what those poppy seeds sold for cooking actually are but it could be worth a try! Deirdre

  • By Densey 2446 Monday, 31 October 2011

    I too have pink Eschscholtzia! Not sure whether it came from a packet of mixed-colour seeds. Orange and white ones come up every year among phlox and others in a rose bed. True poppies are delightful - the Shirleys braved last night"s storm here with buds still abounding and pepperpots too.

    Thanks, Densey. The pink Californian poppy really is lovely and I am hoping it will self-seed in my garden. Deirdre

  • By Margaret 4350 Monday, 31 October 2011

    I remember the Iceland poppies in my parents" garden in Penrith when I was a little girl (now 75). Perhaps Penrith was not as humid as Sydney. I found some many coloured Cal poppy seeds on ebay USA - have emailed customs hoping that I can import a packet! Choc coloured nasturiums and cosmos too.

    I hope you can import your seeds! They sound exciting. I should have mentioned in the blog that the Iceland ones grow well in Sydney - plant them in autumn. They are good for cut flowers. We used to burn the ends of the stems to make them last longer in a vase. Deirdre

  • By beverley 2113 Monday, 31 October 2011

    Thank Deirdre, I too love poppies but I think my orange poppies heard me say that, so they are coming up everywhere. I"m just thining when there is a big clump,I think they look best sprinkled through the garden,so am trying to encourage that. Beverley.

    Thanks, Beverley. The seedlings you gave me are still alive so I hope they will come up everywhere in my garden next year! Deirdre

  • By Lyn 4570 Monday, 31 October 2011

    Try Diggers Club in Dromana or online diggers.com.au - They have some wonderful poppies.Love to hear happy outcomes like yours.

    Thanks, Lyn. They are a good source of unusual seeds. Deirdre

  • By Georgina 2076 Monday, 31 October 2011

    What wonderful memories I have of the poppies that were planted in my grandparents" garden. To see them waving in the breeze was quite something. I love all poppies but Iceland poppies are special.Georgina

    Thanks, Georgina. I think that a lot more people used to grow them in previous decades as we all seem to have memories of them! Deirdre

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