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Annual Poppies for the Spring Flower Garden

annual poppies

Iceland poppies are technically a perennial plant, but they're most often grown as an annual for spring color.

Text by Amy Grisak for the November/December 2018 issue of Horticulture.

Poppies are one of those flowers that are so finely put together, they don’t even seem real. The papery petals of their often-large yet always delicate flowers last only briefly. Although they resist being cut and brought indoors, poppies continually elicit enthusiastic reactions.
Part of poppies’ appeal is their range of color. They bloom in brilliant reds and oranges to the softest pastels, so you can always find a variety that suits your botanical palette. But the most wonderful aspect of poppies, be they annual or perennial, is their ease of care.

Annual Poppies
Many of the poppies gardeners consider annuals are sometimes perennials in other locations, yet all of these reseed so it really doesn’t matter. Just be sure to plant them in an area where they can grow each season.

One example of a perennial treated like an annual is the Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule, shown)—which originates in Asia, not Iceland. It is frequently grown in flowerbeds, often alongside pansies, in southern climates during the winter, and then tossed when the temperature starts to climb.

“They throw a profusion of flowers for four to seven weeks,” explains Scott Canning, the Horticulture and Special Projects Director at the Sante Fe Botanical Garden in New Mexico. “But they collapse in the heat and die a miserable death.”

Most annual poppy’s blossoms last a mere day or two, opening in the warmth of the sun and fading quickly. This trait, as well as their tendency to thrive in disturbed soil, led John McCrae to immortalize the Shirley poppy (P. rhoeas) in his poem “In Flanders Fields,” where he described these scarlet flowers springing forth from the graves of the fallen soldiers. To this day, artificial poppies are often given in remembrance of this ultimate sacrifice.

Widespread in Europe (and often considered a weed), Shirley poppies found their way to the Americas intermixed with the grain seed brought over by early settlers. This common poppy grows 10 to 36 inches tall. While the original version boasts simple brilliant-red blooms, over the years varieties in pastels and white, bicolored and with double petals became garden favorites. They are best planted amid plants that can hide their foliage once their blossoms fade.

Although not of the genus Papaver, California’s state flower, the bright and cheerful California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) has become a familiar favorite across the continent. It puts on an impressive gold and orange display ideal for borders and expansive areas that require bold color. There are also pale and white cultivars. They do particularly well in dry conditions, as they do not tolerate wet soil. According to Canning, the key is to grow them in gravel mulch to keep them happy. Beyond being a beautiful garden flower, the single, cupped flowers on their one- to three-foot stalks are particularly important as a pollinator to native bee species.

Depending on climate, “California poppies can be a perennial, but they also self sow,” says Canning. Thinning is crucial since they develop into skinny, yellow wisps of stalks if they grow too close together. “You have to be pretty savage (in thinning),” he says, but the result is worth the effort.

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