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Planting Poppies In Containers: How To Care For Potted Poppy Plants

Poppies are beautiful in any garden bed, but poppy flowers in a pot make a stunning display on a porch or balcony. Potted poppy plants are simple to grow and easy to care for. Read on to learn more about container care for poppies.

Planting Poppies in Containers

It is not difficult to grow poppies in containers as long as you plant them in the correct sized pot, use quality soil, and give them adequate light and water. Ask your local nursery to help you choose the variety of poppies you want. You can choose by color, height and type of bloom – single, double or semi-double.

Any medium-sized container is perfect as long as it has never contained chemicals or other toxic materials. The container needs drainage holes to prevent the plant from standing in waterlogged soil. You can also attach casters to the bottom if you want to be able to easily move your container grown poppies.

These plants like humus-rich, loamy soil. You can create a favorable soil blend for poppy flowers in a pot by amending regular potting soil with some compost. Fill the container to 1 ½ inches (3.8 cm.) from the top with the humus-rich potting soil.

Sow poppy seeds directly on top of the soil. These seeds need light to germinate so there is no need to cover them with soil. Gently water in the seeds, taking care to avoid washing them to the sides of the container. Keep soil moist until germination occurs. Carefully thin seedlings once the plants reach 5 inches (13 cm.) to about 4-6 inches (10-15 cm.) apart.

Container grown poppies should be placed where they will receive full sun for 6-8 hours a day. Provide afternoon shade if you live in a region that experiences extreme heat.

How to Care for Potted Poppy Plants

Container plants require more frequent watering than those planted in a garden bed due to increased evaporation. Potted poppy plants will not do well in waterlogged soil but they also shouldn’t be allowed to dry out. Water potted poppies every other day during the growing season to prevent them from drying out. Allow the top inch (2.5 cm.) or so of soil to dry out before watering again.

If desired, you can fertilize poppies every two weeks during their first growing season with an all-purpose fertilizer or compost tea. After their first year, fertilize at the beginning and end of each growing season.

To enjoy continuous blooms, deadhead them regularly, as pinching off old flowers encourages the plant to produce more.

Follow these guidelines and enjoy container grown poppies for years to come.

by Matt Gibson

The golden poppy became known as the California poppy when the state of California adopted the flower as their state flower in 1903. The lovely golden orange perennial is one of the first wildflowers to be cultivated in gardens. Also known as Flame Flower, la amapola, and Copa de Oro (cup of gold), flanders poppy, corn poppy, Iceland poppy, oriental poppy, and golden poppy, the bright orange flower sets the California hills ablaze from early spring to late fall.

Poppy Day is celebrated on April 6th each year, and May 13th through May 18th is Poppy Week. Though most commonly seen in golden orange, the California poppy can also be found in shades of bronze, scarlet, terra-cotta, white, and rose. The bright blooms of the poppy are perched atop foot high silvery-green foliage. The plant is a slight bit wider than it is tall, with flowers that stretch one to two inches wide, each consisting of four fan-shaped petals and a group of stamens. The foliage is divided into narrow segments on long stalks with three to four inch fern-like leaves. California poppy grows naturally in open areas, grassy, and sandy slopes.

The flower is not exclusive to California, however, but can be found from southern California to southern Washington, and as far east as Texas. Native Americans from California loved the Golden poppy, and used it as a source of food and extracted oil from the plant for medicinal purposes.

It is important to address the distinction between the California poppy and Papaver somniferum. The milky sap of Papaver somniferum’s unripened seed pods is the primary source of opiate drugs, such as morphine, opium, codeine, and heroin. Though the two species are cousins, the sap of the California poppy is non-narcotic. It does have mild sedative properties, but not nearly as powerful as its illegal-to-grow cousin.

Poppy seeds, also called maw seeds are used for flavoring in baking, ground for flour, and are commonly found in birdseed. Poppy oil, which is derived from Golden poppy seeds, is used in cooking, and as an additive in paints, varnishes, and soaps.

The Poppy symbolizes peace, death and sleep, and is one of the most important flowers in mythology. The poppy also symbolizes rest and recovery, consolation for loss and death, remembrance of fallen soldiers, peace in death, imagination, messages gleaned from dreaming, resurrection and immortality, beauty, success, extravagance, wealth, and luxury.

Varieties of California Poppy

There are many different types of poppy flowers, but only three types of Golden Poppy. California Golden is the classic bright orange poppy seen all across the hills of California, especially in the southern regions. Mission Bells poppy is available in a wide range of sherbet shades like pink, salmon, and cream, and some hybrids even have semi-double blooms. Golden West poppy is a hybrid of the classic orange flower that is known as California Golden, and is only available in orange, set apart from the original only by its darker center.

Growing Conditions for California Poppy

As with many native wildflowers, California poppies are easy to care for and maintain when grown in their native regions, or when provided with a habitat that mimics their native environment. For the California poppy, the old adage, “less is more,” is truly applicable, as it is more important to focus on what you don’t give the poppy more than what you do provide it. California poppies need less water, less warmth, and less soil nutrition. The less they are given, the more they will become self-reliant, and will even begin to self-sow around the garden in places you wouldn’t expect to see them.

A full six hours of unfiltered sunlight is essential and more is even better, so pick a bright sunny location for your poppies. Though some California poppies may survive in shady locations, they will look tarnished and leggy, and will be more prone to developing fungal diseases than their sunbathing brethren. Golden poppies prefer poor soil conditions to rich soil, but will survive in any soil type except for heavy clay soils, as their tap roots require good drainage. If you have a clay-rich soil, try your poppies out in raised beds with altered soil or containers.

If temperatures are mild, or between 50 and 75 degrees F, California poppies will continue to grow and bloom each spring. In areas with hot summer climates, they will become dormant during the summer instead of continuing to bloom through the season. When cool temperatures return, so will your poppies, regrowing and re-blooming from their tap roots.

Care of California Poppy

California poppies don’t need very much water to thrive, and are practically drought-tolerant. Spring rainfall is usually enough to irrigate the plants sufficiently. In areas with hot summers, the plants will go dormant and will need no additional water during the summer months. Only water California poppies during droughts or extremely dry periods.

No fertilizer is needed for California poppies, even in poor soil conditions. Adding fertilizer to your soil will cause additional foliage growth and less focus on blooms.

How To Grow California Poppy In Containers

When growing California poppies in containers, start from seed. Golden Poppies have long tap roots and hate to be transplanted. Treat container poppies like you would any hardy annual, pulling them up when they’re done blooming, as they will most likely die over winter in a container. If you want to try to keep them alive, bring them indoors during the winter and let them go dormant and gradually reintroduce them to the outdoors the following spring.

How To Plant California Poppy

Plant poppy seeds directly into the ground in a bright sunny location after the last threat of frost has passed. Press the seeds into the soil gently with your fingers and water gently to keep from dislodging the tiny seeds. The warming of the soil in spring and light spring rains will help to trigger germination, which should occur in about two weeks. You can tell the poppies from weeds by noticing the bluish-green tint of poppy foliage, so pull the weeds up and thin poppy seedlings to about eight inches apart.

Garden Pests and Diseases of California Poppy

California poppies can contract several diseases, especially in a location that endures heavy, or excessive rain or overwatering. Mold, stem rot, and mildew can all affect poppy plants grown in wet habitats. Antifungal applications can help subdue some of the issues that come with overwatering, but the best defense against these diseases is planting your poppies in locations that receive full sunlight exposure and maintaining a well-draining soil to help keep your poppies as dry as possible. There are no known pest issues that affect the California poppy.

Common Questions and Answers About California Poppy

California poppies are perennials. However, they are sometimes grown like annuals because they mature quickly, with just weeks between the gardener planting the seed and the California poppy flowering. To learn more, read our article on the difference between annuals and perennials.

Are California poppies drought tolerant?

Plants that make their homes in dry conditions tend to be tolerant of drought, and the California poppy is no exception. They are extremely drought tolerant and also thrive in hot weather.

Are California poppies hard to grow?

From shallow planting to low maintenance and self-seeding propagation, gardeners agree that California poppies are easy to grow. They are also adaptable to less than stellar soil quality, varying light situations, and tolerate drought and heat easily.

Are California poppies poisonous to dogs and cats?

There is contradictory information about whether California poppies are poisonous to pets. They are not listed in the poisonous plant databases of the ASPCA, Purdue University, or Cornell University. However, pet food company Drs. Foster & Smith does report California poppies are poisonous on its website. Not to mention, the California poppy is cousin to toxic poppy varieties. To be safe, cultivate California poppies in an area where they’ll be safe from pets who may be likely to take a curious bite.

Are California poppies poisonous to humans?

The USDA plant guide for California poppies points out that it has dose-dependent toxicity, though the plant can be used medicinally. Some indigenous people in places where California poppies grow wild consider it poisonous. (Other indigenous groups use California poppies as both medicine and food.) According to the USDA guide, “California poppy may be toxic when taken internally without sufficient preparation.” If you feel ill after ingestion, contact the Poison Control Center Hotline at (800) 222-1222.

Are California poppy leaves edible?

The flowers of the California poppy are edible, and the leaves can be cooked or used to steep an herbal tea infusion (also called a tisane). However, due to the plant’s narcotic and sedative effect, caution is advised. When the plant is consumed, it is usually as a medicinal supplement. People whose systems are not used to California poppy can ingest too much and become ill. Additionally, the leaves are too bitter to make eating the California poppy’s foliage enjoyable.

Can I start poppies indoors?

Because poppies can be finicky at the transplanting stage, it’s best not to start your California poppies indoors. If you must, however, plant them in peat or coir pots and keep the soil temperature at 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In 20-30 days, your seeds will have sprouted. The recommended method of starting seeds is to direct sow outdoors, either barely covering the seeds or leaving them on the surface of the soil, and thinning them to about six inches apart as they grow.

Can you cut back California poppies?

Though cutting back California poppies is not required, trimming them after the year’s blossoms have dropped can help get them ready to grow again next spring. Cutting your California poppies back also gives you a chance to collect the seeds and avoid the plant’s tendency to spread like wildfire (or like wildflowers).

Begin with clean, sterilized garden shears. After the flowers have faded and foliage becomes discolored (first with leaves becoming brown, then stems turning black), begin checking the seed pods so you’ll know when they’re ready to harvest. Using your fingers, break open a seed pod to find out what color the seeds are. Green seeds are immature, but once they’ve turned black, you can begin harvesting the seed pods, continuing while the seed pods turn beige.

If you want to control the California poppy’s spread, work to collect the pods quickly, because they will eventually explode, each launching about 70 seeds onto the ground that are so tiny they’re practically invisible.

Store the seed pods in a paper bag, but don’t close it too tightly. Then it’s time to trim. At this point, the stems of the California poppies should be black. Cut them back to three inches above the ground, and allow the remaining stems to shrivel and decay.

Can you grow California poppies indoors?

California poppies aren’t recommended as a houseplant. They thrive in sunlight and heat that we don’t experience inside, and their root systems are quite long. And because California poppies don’t transplant well, it’s best not to start them indoors and then move them outside. For best results, grow California poppies outdoors.

Do California poppies attract bees?

Although poppies don’t contain nectar, bees love them because they offer so much pollen.

Do California poppies come back every year?

Yes, California poppies will survive the winter (in locations where winter is mild) using their underground taproot and return the next year. In locations with more extreme winters, the California poppy acts like an annual and returns via its prolific self-seeding. If you don’t want a brand new batch next year, you’ll have to take measures to prevent it—watching the seed pods carefully so you can collect them after seeds mature and before the pods explode.

Do California poppies need full sun?

California poppies thrive in full sun, needing at least six hours per day and preferring more. They can stand up to hot weather, so find them a spot to grow with as much sunlight as possible.

Do California poppies only grow in California?

Although California poppies do grow in California, their territory spreads up through the state of Washington and eastward through to Texas. The seeds also traveled in sand used as ballast to deposit California poppies in Australia, New Zealand, and Chile.

Do California poppies spread?

California poppies spread vigorously through self-seeding and their underground taproots if no action is taken to prevent them spreading.

Do you deadhead California poppies?

You can choose to deadhead California poppies if you want to collect the seeds or prevent the plant from self-seeding (and thereby spreading), but it’s not necessary. Use clean hands or sterilized gardening shears and remove the blossoms individually, leaving the foliage behind. If you’re using your hands, just pinch to remove the spent flowers; there’s no need to pull at them, which could damage the plant.

How do you grow poppies in pots?

California poppies can be grown in containers, and it’s a good way to prevent the tendency to spread that some gardeners find frustrating. Use a medium-sized container that includes drainage holes and an all-purpose potting soil with some compost mixed in.

Fill the container with the soil mixture, and sow your California poppy seeds on the surface. Don’t cover the seeds with soil, or they won’t get the sunlight they need to sprout. Water gently, making sure not to splash the seeds out of the container or over the sides. Keep the soil moist, then thin seedlings to leave six inches of space around the strongest ones once they’ve grown to five inches tall. Place the container in a location where it will get at least six hours of sun per day.

How do you harvest California poppies?

During the summer and fall, California poppies can be harvested as cut flowers to use in arrangements or to use the seeds (and prevent self-seeding, as well as the spread of the poppies that goes along with self-seeding). Harvest using clean, sterilized shears to prevent the spread of disease in your garden. To harvest cut flowers, snip the stems just as the flowers begin to open, and they will stay fresh in water for three or four days while they continue opening.

To harvest seed pods, wait for flowers to drop off, then open a pod with your fingers or shears to check seed maturity. The green seeds inside will turn black when the pods are ready to be harvested, and you can continue harvesting as the pods change colors to beige. Work to collect the pods before they open on their own, flinging their seeds into the air and your garden. Cut the pods off the plant and store them in a box, paper bag, or other container. Inside the container, the pods will open and release the seeds on their own.

How long do California poppies last?

Each blossom of a California poppy lasts only a few days, but their blooming period lasts throughout the summer in their USDA hardiness zones, which are 5 through 10.

How much water do California poppies need?

California poppies don’t need much watering from the gardener. Once they’re established, rainfall should provide all they need in the spring. In especially hot areas, the plants go dormant during summer and don’t need watering during their dormancy. You’ll only need to step in and hydrate California poppies during times of drought and when they’re young. Seedlings and young plants need light watering until they’re well established and can be left to their own devices. Provide water when the soil is dry, letting it dry out completely between waterings, and water the base of the plants to avoid getting the foliage wet. Too much wetness, and your California poppies could contract root rot. For details, you can read our article on how to water seeds and seedlings.

How often do California poppies bloom?

California poppies have a yearly summer bloom season. While each individual bloom lasts only a few days, the poppies continue to bloom all summer long. In especially temperate areas, the blooming season may be extended. For example, some parts of California see blooms from March through October.

Is California poppy invasive?

Yes, in regions where the poppies are getting the conditions they thrive upon, they can become invasive. This invasiveness is due to their self-seeding and the underground taproots. It can be managed by planting in containers, collecting the seed pods before they burst, or by digging a trench around the area where you want the poppies to stay to slice through the underground roots at the end of each blooming season.

Is it illegal to grow California poppies?

It is not illegal to grow California poppies. The only poppy whose cultivation is illegal in the United States is the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum.

Is it illegal to pick California poppies in California?

It is somewhat true that it’s illegal to pick California poppies in the state of California. Because they are the California state flower, it is illegal to pick the California poppies when they are on state property, including courthouses, schools, parks, and road medians. Outside of state property, however, it is not illegal to pick the California poppies.

What is the best time of year to plant poppy seeds?

Poppy seeds require sunlight to germinate, so the best way to plant them is not to cover them with soil at all. Whether you’re planting in a container or directly into the soil, simply sprinkle the poppy seeds on top, then water well to help the seeds adhere to the soil. Be careful not to water so much that the seeds wash away or out and over the sides of the container. Water whenever the soil becomes dry while poppies are young, thinning the seedlings to about six inches between each one. Cease watering once the poppies are well established.

What kind of soil do California poppies like?

California poppies can grow in poor or gravelly soils as well as any type of soil, except for soils that contain lots of clay. However, their preference is for rich loamy soil including some compost or, in containers, an all-purpose potting soil mixed with compost.

What does the California poppy look like?

California poppies feature delicate, fern-like foliage and tall stems topped with crepey blooms of a few petals that almost appear to be made out of tissue paper. The blossoms come in shades of orange, yellow, and red.

What does the California poppy symbolize?

The California poppy is the state flower of California, and it’s thought to have been chosen because they symbolize the fields of gold that many people came to California in search of during the gold rush.

What do you do with poppies when they have finished flowering?

After your poppies have flowered, you do not need to do anything for them unless you wish to control their spread and keep them in one set area. If you do wish to control the spread of the poppies, you’ll want to both collect the seed pods before they burst and dig a trench around the area where you want the poppies to stay, going deep enough to slice through the taproots that grow sideways underground. Collect seed pods after the blooms have faded and the seeds inside have matured. Check daily for maturity by opening a seed pod with your hands. Once the green seeds inside have turned black, it’s time to begin snipping the pods off the poppies with clean, sterilized shears. The pods will eventually turn brown, and you should continue collecting them. Shortly thereafter, they’ll burst open on their own, releasing 70 seeds per pod into the air and onto the ground. Your goal should be to collect all the pods before they explode. Store the seeds, if you wish to keep them, in a box, paper bag loosely closed, or other container until planting.

Where do California poppies grow?

The California poppy’s origins are in western North America, where they grow wild in fields and along roadsides. Its territory rangers from southwestern Washington south through California and continues east to Texas. Miners leaving California after the gold rush transported the California poppy’s seeds in the sand their boats used as ballast, spreading its territory to include such far-flung locations as Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. Today, the most dazzling wild displays of California poppies can be seen, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Master Gardener Program Division of Extension, at “The ‘Grapevine,’ along Interstate 5 where it winds its way past Gorman at the northern edge of Los Angeles County; north of Lake Elsinor, off I-15 at the end of the Lake Street exit; and at the 1,700 acre high desert grassland area, Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in the Mojave Desert.”

Want to learn more about California poppies?

Better Homes & Gardens covers California Poppy

Flower Society covers California Poppy Profile

USDA Forest Service covers California Poppy

Gardenia covers California Poppy

Gardening Know How covers Growing California Poppy

SFGate Homeguides covers California Poppy Tips

Irish Examiner covers Orange California Poppy

Natural Healthy Concepts covers California Poppy

sfsu.edu covers California Poppy

Planet Natural covers Growing California Poppy

USDA covers California Poppy

The Royal Horticultural Society covers California Poppies

San Francisco CBS Local covers Illegal to Pick California Poppy?

The Telegraph covers How to Grow California Poppy

The Natural Niche covers California Poppy

The Gardener’s Rake covers How to Grow Poppies Indoors

Thompson & Morgan covers How to Grow Poppies in Your Garden

WebMD covers California Poppy

West Coast Seeds covers Growing Poppies

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center covers California Poppies Dangerous to Dogs

California Department of Fish and Wildlife covers California Poppy

How to grow poppies in your garden

Poppies hold a special place in many people’s hearts.
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Growing your own poppies from seed is an easy way to add striking swathes of colour to your garden, and a great filler for any unused space. Even better news? Once planted, they’ll come back year after year, forming graceful drifts over time.

Follow our simple guide to growing poppies and you’ll soon have lots of these distinctive and delicate flowers to brighten up your beds and borders.

Which poppy variety should you plant?

There’s more to poppies than the iconic red flowers.
Featured product: Poppy ‘Bridal White’ from Thompson & Morgan

You can choose from approximately 120 different varieties of poppy including annual, biennial and perennial flowers. They come in a wide choice of colours – sow a mixture of poppy seeds for a naturalised wildflower garden look, or make a dramatic statement by sowing a single colour en masse.

The Flanders or field poppy (papaver rhoeas) is the simplest to grow, and is best known as a symbol of remembrance for soldiers who gave their lives in the first World War. It’s an annual, bee-friendly variety that’s ideal in a wildflower garden.

If you want a longer-term plant, biennial and perennial poppies make a vivid addition to your garden or border. Oriental poppies have larger, blousy flowers, while Icelandic and Japanese poppies come in unique shades like mauve and gold.

If you’re growing poppies for culinary use, the opium poppy is a good choice. The seeds can be eaten and are used for adding extra flavour, crunch and bite to breads and cakes. Be careful, as the seeds of many other poppy species are not edible. Also, you must not consume any other part of a poppy plant – they’re poisonous.

When to plant poppies

Choose an autumn-sow variety for a great display the following summer.
Featured product: Poppy ‘Hensol Violet’ from Thompson & Morgan

Sow poppy seeds directly into your garden in spring or autumn. If you’re planting early in the year, usually between March and May is best, but you’ll have to wait until the following summer for a healthy display. Sow between the end of August and October for more flowers in the first season.

Check the individual seed packet for when specific varieties should be sown.

How to sow poppy seeds

The distinctive poppy Blackcurrant Fizz has unusually deep, burgundy blooms.
Image source: Thompson & Morgan

  • • Choose a sunny spot with good drainage. Weed the area and rake to a fine tilth.
  • • Pour some poppy seeds into your hand and sprinkle them very thinly across the ground to create natural looking drifts.
  • • Allow 7-30 days to germinate, depending on the variety, soil condition and growing temperatures. Keep the soil moist during germination.
  • • Once the seedlings are large enough to handle, thin them out to around 30cm (12in) apart.
  • • Water the area regularly, especially during dry spells. Be careful not to overdo it as this encourages quick growth and leggy plants, or even rot.

Left it too late to start from seed? You can buy oriental varieties like the satin poppy as mature plants. Harden off outside for 2-3 days when all risk of frost has passed before planting out in fertile, well drained soil.

Top tips for growing poppies

Poppies are a great way to fill unused space and are easy to care for.
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  • • Water poppies during dry spells, but don’t oversaturate.
  • • Deadhead faded poppy flowers often to encourage more blooms.
  • • If left to seed poppies self-sow, so avoid unwanted spread by removing faded flowers in good time.
  • • To harvest seed pods, cut when the pods turn light brown and dry out for 1-2 weeks before breaking open and storing seeds in a jar for up to two years.
  • • Once annual poppies have gone to seed, pull up parent plants and compost.
  • • For biennials and perennials, cut back old foliage to ground level in autumn.
  • • Divide clumps of poppies in late summer when they’ve finished blooming. Take care, as early separation can damage sensitive taproots.

Poppies make up an important part of wildflower mixes, and are a particularly attractive pollinator plant to bring bees and butterflies to your garden – a great way to attract wildlife and get the kids interested in nature.

Sow a poppy patch for nature

  1. Decide where you are going to sow your seeds. You need:
  • somewhere which gets lots of sun. Ideally, it will be at least a square metre for real effect, but this is an easy activity to do over an even larger area
  • if space is limited, use a large plant pot, but just be aware that the smaller the area the less likely it is to attract wildlife. So think big!
  • soil type doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to be a poor soil, unlike when planting a true wildflower meadow – remember, this is a poppyfield or cornfield, not a meadow
  1. Work out the size of the plot. This will help you decide how many seeds to buy. It takes just 2-5 grams of seed for each square metre. You might even like to add barley, oats and wheat seeds for the real cornfield effect.
  2. In autumn or early spring, prepare your sowing area. This bit is important – you need to make sure the area is as free of weeds as possible. If you’re using a pot and fresh compost, this won’t be a problem. If you’re digging an area of ground, you might have to work a bit harder! Some people use a weedkiller, but it’s much more environmentally friendly to cover it with old carpet or black plastic for a few weeks to kill anything trying to germinate. Then lightly dig the soil surface over and rake it to create a ‘seedbed’ (you want the surface to be fine granules, not big clods!)
  3. Sow the seeds evenly across the seedbed surface. If including barley, oats or wheat seeds, sow them first in drills at a depth of 2cm before surface sowing the flower seeds. There is no need to rake the seeds in – just press them into the surface using your hand if using a pot, or walk across the surface if you’ve sown them in a bed. This makes sure the seeds are in contact with the surface. Water, and give them the odd bit of extra water in dry spells. And that’s it. Job done!
  4. Now sit back and watch them grow and flower. There should be flowers from June to September. Be prepared that more poppies will flower from an autumn sowing. At the end of the flowering season, let the plants set seed and die. Dig over the ground in autumn to ensure weeds don’t get a hold. Then repeat next year to make sure your flowers are back again next summer.
  5. What you should see: Bumblebees on the poppies and cornflowers, smaller pollinating insects such as hoverflies on the other flowers. Beetles and birds will forage among the stems.
  6. What to do next: Show everyone your amazing display and inspire them to do the same.

Papaver somniferum in bloom.

Native to Southeastern Europe and Western Asia, breadseed poppy, Papaver somniferum was cultivated in Europe since the Neolithic era and in America as ornamental plants before 1750. This plant contains narcotic alkaloids which are the active compounds of opium and many refined opiates, such as morphine and codeine. Somniferum – meaning “sleep bringing” in Latin – refers to the narcotic properties of the plant. Most of the medicinal opium in the world is produced in India and Turkey. Opium is extracted primarily from the seed capsules. The edible seeds are widely used in baked goods such as bagels, muffins and cakes, and since they contain 40- 50% oil can be pressed for oil for cooking – similar to sesame oil – or for use in oil-based paints.

The tiny poppy seeds (L) have a reticulate seed coat when viewed up close (R).

Some plants have high alkaloid content and are grown to produce opium or medicinal drugs. Most of the horticultural types (for ornamental use or seed production) were selected for their appearance and may contain only trace amounts of alkaloids, but some can have the same morphine content as those grown for opium. As a Schedule 2 controlled substance, it is technically illegal to grow P. somniferum in the United States, but typically this is not enforced for poppies grown as ornamentals.

Breadseed poppy plants grow quickly from seed up to three feet tall. They are hardy, cool season annuals, germinating early in the season and the foliage is not affected by light frosts (the flowers are sensitive to freezing). The dull green to blue-green, glaucous leaves clasp the strong upright stems growing from a stout tap root. The smooth leaves have jagged edges and a crisp texture, resembling loose-leaf lettuce leaves. The foliage begins to decline once the plant is in bloom, and by the time the flowers are done will dry up completely.

Seedling with seed coat still on cotyledon (L), seedlings with first set of true leaves (LC), young plants (C and RC), and developing plant before blooming (R).

Single types have luminous, papery petals.

Blooming in early- to mid-summer, this common annual can have flowers in many shades of pink, red and purple, as well as white and bicolors. Single types have 5 luminous, papery petals, while double types have many more. Singles or partly double forms form a cup shape, with a dark or white blotch at the base. Flowers on large plants can be up to 4 inches across. The paeoniflorum group has double flowers that are reminiscent of a peony and the laciniatum group has highly double flowers with deeply lobed petals that give the flower a ruffled, pompon appearance.

Many forms of Papaver somniferum have dark blotches at the base of the cup of petals.

Fat, dull-green, buds covered with soft hairs start out hanging from downward-nodding stems, like a shepherd’s crook, but become erect as the sepals open to reveal the tightly packed petals. The sepals typically fall off the plant, but occasionally will remain attached at the base of the flower. The plants are self-fertile, and are pollinated by bees. The flowers can be used as cut flowers, lasting longer if the cut stem is cauterized before placing in water.

Flower bud emerging from middle of plant (L), growing hanging down (L), then starting to straighten up (RC) as the sepals open (R).

Flower bud of a pink highly double (lacinatum group) opening (L), expanding (LC), at peak bloom (RC) and petals shattering (R).

In a few days the petals fall off, leaving behind an ovoid seed capsule. The green capsules swell to become up to as large as a golf ball. They turn brown as they mature. Each seed capsule contains numerous small, round black, white, or grayish-blue seeds with a favose-reticulate (honeycombed) seed coat. Large capsules can contain up to a thousand seeds. When ripe, several vents develop at the top of the capsule to allow the seeds to be dispersed. Dried mature seed capsules can be used in floral arrangements and crafts.

The petals fall off (L) to reveal a fat green capsule (LC) which eventually dries and turns brown as small vents open at the top (RC). The seed inside the capsule turns from white (top R) to brown (bottom R), then black as it matures.

Plant breadseed poppies in annual or mixed beds for colorful flowers in summer.

Use breadseed poppy in annual or mixed beds for its attractive foliage early in the season and the colorful flowers in the summer. They are bests mixed in with other plants which will disguise the senescing foliage as they finish blooming or will fill in after the plants are removed. They can also be grown in larger containers that provide enough room for good development.

Breadseed poppy is very easy to grow in full sun in well-drained soil. Plants rarely need staking, especially if spaced properly to allow for robust development. They have few pests other than aphids on occasion.

Breadseed poppy self sows readily, so deadhead or prepare to remove lots of seedlings.

Breadseed poppies are easy to grow in full sun.

As annuals, poppies are only grown from seed, and self-sow readily. They do best sown directly in the desired location in either early spring or late summer/fall to germinate the following spring. Sprinkle the small gray, black or brown seeds on prepared soil, but do not cover. Mixing the seeds with some sand makes it easier to spread them more evenly over the planting area as you can see where you’ve broadcast them. Seeds should germinate in about a week or two in early spring. They germinate better in cool soil, so seeding later in the spring often is unsuccessful. They can also be started indoors if necessary, but need to be kept cooler than room temperature to do well. Once the seedlings are about an inch tall, thin the plants to about a foot apart. Remove the smallest plants (pull or cut off the tops), or transplant carefully, trying to disturb the roots as little as possible as they have very sensitive root systems and do not transplant well. Plants growing closer together will be small, weak, and produce fewer and much smaller flowers.

To reduce volunteers, deadhead before the seed capsules turn brown (or pull out the entire plant after flowering, but often larger plants are still producing flower buds when the first seed capsules are ripening). To save seed, invert opened capsules into a container. To sow in another area, just cut off the opened capsules and shake them over the new area.

There are many heirloom varieties that are passed along without a name other than the color. But there are many named varieties which can be purchased, including these examples (and many more):

  • ‘Black Widow’ has deep purple, fully double flowers.
  • ‘Cherry Glow’ has large, scarlet petals and decorative seed heads excellent for use in dried arrangements.
  • Double Raspberry Blush ‘Plaza de Rito’ is a deep pink double flower with a frilly center.
  • ‘Flemish Antique’ has fully double flowers in shades of red, rose and striped creamy white.
  • Fluffy Ruffles is a mixture of ‘Crimson Feathers’, ‘Rose Feathers’ and ‘Swansdown’, all having deeply laciniated petals resembling a pompom in crimson, rose and white.
  • ‘Frosted Salmon’ has orangy-pink petals that fade along the edges with age.
  • ‘Hens and Chickens’ produces one main pod surrounded by masses of smaller pods giving the impression of a mother hen and chicks.
  • ‘Swansdown’ is a white laciniatum type.
  • ‘Venus’ is a laciniatum type with large fringed petals of rosy red with white on the underside at the base of the petals.
  • ‘White Cloud’ is a paeoniflorum type with extra-large, pure white double flowers.

Papaver somniferum may have flowers in various shades of red, pink, purple and white, and in single, double and highly double forms (the varieties pictured were unnamed).

Poppies hybridize easily, so if trying to save specific varieties, plant them far apart or cover the flowers with small bags as they open to prevent cross pollination (but you may need to hand pollinate by moving the pollen from the anthers to the stigma with a small brush).

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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