Oklahoma: A Poppy’s Roots

BY RUSSELL STUDEBAKER/Tulsa, Oklahoma, Zone 6

Starting out from Mexico in 1541, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Coronado searched in vain for fabled gold on the plains of Texas and Kansas near Wichita. A few centuries later, and not far from Wichita, I rediscovered a plant that seems to be almost as rare as gold, at least in the nursery trade. Traveling through Winfield, Kansas, in the 1970s, I noticed a traffic island in which there grew magnificent double orange poppies that were as desirable to me as gold was to Coronado.

Wanting to expand the species range of this beautiful plant, I gathered seeds and grew them in Tulsa. Through the ensuing years, I saw this poppy only rarely in other gardens, where their owners simply called it “double orange poppy.” Years passed, and I found it growing also in Victorian cottage gardens in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and—surprisingly—in my own neighborhood. Emulating Coronado’s extensive quest, I determined to learn its proper name.

It definitely grew differently from an Oriental poppy; for one thing, it was more prone to increase by runners, producing nice clumps. Then in late summer it would go dormant, and reappear in early spring. I soon realized that I would need help to identify it, so I made a color photo of the blooming plant on the top portion of a page, and on the bottom of the page I wrote its description and my observation of its habits.

Like a rap sheet for a wanted person, these mug shots and marks of identification were sent to several persons of horticultural expertise who I thought might help. After several weeks, all my inquires were answered (a great accomplishment in itself). Most were unfamiliar with the plant, and one respondent thought it might be a semidouble Oriental poppy.

The true identity came in a letter from Fred McGourty, owner of Hillside Gardens, a perennial nursery in Norfolk, Connecticut, and the former editor of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Handbook Series. Mr. McGourty wrote in March of 2001 telling me that there were not many cultivars of poppies with double flowers, and that this one seemed to match Papaver lateritium ‘Flore Pleno’, commonly known as the Armenian poppy. He also wrote that it was uncommon in the eastern United States and could well be a pass-over-the-fence plant of rural areas.

In his book Poppies, Christopher Grey-Wilson reports that “it is a native of the mountains of Turkish Armenia (Lazistan) where it inhabits rocky places, cliff crevices, and screes at altitudes of 3,900-9,850 feet.” The Armenian poppy is a long-lived perennial, naturalized in England, and is hardy here from Zones 4 to 9. In Tulsa its two-and-a-half to three-inch bright orange flowers open in May, looking like ruffled petticoats. They are traffic stoppers, however, and can be difficult to assimilate into most color schemes. They might be best used in a border’s front with gray or silver plants.

It seems that, regardless of the success of recent plant hunters in exotic places, there are still worthy plants to be discovered, or rediscovered, in our own wonderful land.

To do in the garden

  • Keep bird feeders filled. Provide water, and in areas where birdbaths freeze, an electric birdbath heater.

  • Wrap the trunks of young and thin-barked trees with commercial tree wrap to prevent sun scald damage to bark in late winter.

  • Send soil samples to your agricultural extension office for testing and recommendations.

  • Spade empty beds and leave them rough, allowing for soil texture improvement by freezing and thawing and deep penetration of moisture.

  • After a hard freeze, mulch rose bush canes eight to ten inches high with mulch or soil.

Worth growing

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica)

Except for textures, gardeners think that frost puts an end to the aesthetic appeal of perennials. Not so with our Ozark native frostweed (also known as white crown-beard). Long after the passing monarch butterflies have sipped its fall flowers’ nectar, hard freezes produce “frost flowers” at the stem bases. The sap from active roots creates wavy bands of ice emerging like ribbon candy for several weeks. Hardy in USDA Zones 5-9.

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