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Blue Poppies in Alaska

Blue poppies grow better in Alaska than anywhere else in the country. Here's an expert's take.

Although we Alaskan gardeners may not be able to grow quite as many perennials as gardeners in warmer climates, what we lack in quantity is made up for in quality. Primroses, delphiniums, and autumn gentians all excel in Alaska, and now, thanks to the keen eye and hard work of one man—Stan Ashmore, of Palmer—blue poppies (Meconopsis spp.) have been added to the list of plants that grow better in Alaska than anywhere in the country.

In the early 1990s, blue poppies were being grown in only a handful of Alaska's gardens, and fortunately one of those gardens happened to be in Ashmore's hometown, at the Palmer Visitor Center. Head gardener Wendy Anderson had obtained a Meconopsis betonicifolia plant from the passionate plantsman Doug Tryck. When Ashmore saw it in bloom, he was blown away. He didn't know much about the plant, but had read enough to know he was “seeing the Holy Grail” of garden plants.

Ashmore had been working for the government as a hydrographic surveyor for nearly 30 years then. But he had always considered the job temporary, because his real dream was to produce a profitable agricultural crop. The blue poppy looked like a promising candidate: exceedingly beautiful, rare, and yet fairly easy to grow. Knowing, though, that “the surest way to making a small fortune in farming is to start with a large one,” he kept his day job when he launched his wholesale nursery, The Blue Poppy, 10 years ago. Wilderness Nursery in Palmer was his first customer, agreeing to take 25 plants in bloom. He laughs a bit now at his early enthusiasm, recalling that he went over daily to check sales, and, when 50 plants had sold by the end of the season, he felt like a major capitalist.

Hungry for greater understanding of the mysterious Meconopsis, Ashmore has twice traveled to China in search of wild seed for comparison with garden-grown strains. In addition, he's been active in the Meconopsis study group since its inception, and he and his wife Dona went to Scotland in 2001 to attend their study group. Strangely, they found that many of the blue poppies growing in Scotland were more violet-purple than blue, compared to those that grow in Alaska.

Ashmore wholesales the truly blue Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’, and although it's a magnificent plant, he's working on something even better. Blooming on a central stem from the top down, M. ‘Lingholm’ produces seed pods that detract from the beauty of the lower flowers. He hopes to make a successful cross with M. simplicifolia; the desired offspring would bloom from basal flower stems while retaining the superior blue of ‘Lingholm’.

The Blue Poppy's reputation as a grower of first-rate plants has spread to the Lower 48, and several horticultural institutions are ordering plants to force for spring conservatory displays. Longwood Gardens was the first to treat their visitors to such a rarity. Ashmore's blue poppies can be seen in spring displays at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia; the horticulture department at the University of Illinois; and the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.

The best blue poppies I've ever grown were planted in a bed that had been dug 18 inches deep, refilled with birch leaves, and layered with some sandy topsoil and a couple of pounds of bloodmeal. Meconopsis prefer acidic soil, heavily amended with organic matter, that's constantly moist but not waterlogged, and my recipe seems to have satisfied all those requirements.

Thousands of Alaskan gardeners, from frigid Fairbanks in the interior to the southeast's soggy Sitka, are now growing blue poppies, and they all came from Stan Ashmore. Contributing a new, hardy, ethereally beautiful plant to gardeners in a climate as challenging as Alaska's would give some folks a big head, but when I asked Ashmore how he felt about this accomplishment he replied, in his typically modest manner, “I didn't invent the blue poppy. The plant and I both found a niche in Alaska.”