Poppies: Some are in it for the Long Haul

posted on February 18, 2008 1:19pm


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EAST LANSING, Mich.—Whether you’re trying for a meadow look or putting together a more formal flower bed, poppies have something to offer.
  “Poppies may be annual or perennial,” says Mary McLellan,  Extension Master Gardener program coordinator at Michigan State   University, “and flowers may be single, double or semidouble in colors ranging from soft pink, cream and lilac to vibrant oranges and reds.”
  Flowering, in both perennial and annual poppies, generally occurs in late spring into the summer.
  Perennial poppies for growing in Michigan are Oriental, Alpine and Iceland poppies.
  Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale)  grow 2 to 4 feet tall. Flowers may be watermelon-pink, red or red-orange,  salmon, white or rose-pink, usually with a black blotch at the base of each petal. The foliage dies back after flowering but begins to grow back in the fall. Oriental poppy is hardy in zones 4-9.
  Alpine poppy (P. alpinum) is on the other end of the height scale, reaching 5 to 10 inches and bearing white,  yellow and occasionally orange or red flowers. It’s hardy in zones 5-8, so it may not survive in Michigan’s coldest areas.
  The hardiest of the perennial poppies is Iceland poppy (P. nudicaule) —it is hardy in zones 2-8, though it may not survive an unusually wet winter. It grows 1 to 2 feet tall and bears flowers in white, pink, salmon, apricot, orange, red and yellow.
  Annual poppies (Papaver rhoeas) have several common names, including Flanders poppy, corn poppy and Shirley poppy. Corn poppy flowers may be white, pink,  peach, salmon, orange, red, lilac or purple with a dark blotch at the base of each petal. Plants typically reach 2 to 3 feet in height. The red-flowered annual poppy is often referred to as the Flanders poppy and is often included in wildflower mixes. Shirley poppies grow to about 4 feet in height and bear pastel-colored blooms without the dark blotch and with narrow white or tinted edges on the petals.

Poppies are easy to grow from seed, though Oriental poppies are usually propagated by root divisions. Poppies often seed themselves, sometimes in large numbers. Seeds germinate best in cool weather and soil, and plants tolerate frost, so McLellan advises sowing seed in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring.
  Site requirements are full sun (at least six hours of direct sun daily) and well-drained soil. Seeds are tiny; mixing them with sand may make sowing easier. Seeds need some light to germinate, so barely cover them with a very thin sprinkling of light soil, and keep the area moist (not soggy) until seeds germinate. At a soil temperature of 55 degrees F., this should take 10 to 15 days. To avoid overcrowding, thin seedlings to a spacing of 6 to 10 inches apart when they get big enough to handle—about 1 inch tall.
  “Proper spacing is important to promote good air circulation, which in turn helps reduce the potential for disease problems later,” McLellan notes.
  You can also start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the average date of the last spring frost in your area. Poppies don’t transplant well, so be sure to grow them in biodegradable pots that go into the ground with the plants, she advises.
  Once poppies are up and growing in the garden, they need very little care— little or no supplemental watering, unless the summer is unusually hot and dry,  and no fertilizer. Removing spent flowers will encourage poppies to keep blooming and prevent them from self-seeding.
  Poppies are beautiful in arrangements but short-lived, often lasting only two or three days, McLellan observes. Cut stems will ooze a milky sap that can irritate sensitive skin, she notes, so handling carefully is a good idea.
  Aphids may be a minor problem that is usually well handled by spraying plants with a garden hose. Good air circulation and well-drained soil go a long way to prevent downy mildew, a fungal disease. Prevention is better than trying to cure an infection after it occurs because poppies are sensitive to many garden sprays, McLellan notes.


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