When I watched “The Wizard of Oz” as a kid, I never understood why the poppies in the field Dorothy walked through were all red. Duh, everyone knows that poppies are orange!! Right? Wait…
What my little kid brain didn’t understand was that there were different kinds of living things in different parts of the world. Such a shocker. Even more shocking was the realization that you could actually grow different kinds of things in your yard. I grew up in an era where every yard had lawns, shrubs that were neatly pruned into little round blobs, and the exact same kinds of trees as everyone else. Rather boring.
*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*
These flowers are anything but boring. Large scarlet red and satiny petals perched atop narrow stems in abundance, gracefully waving in the breeze create pops of electric color. Since the stems are so narrow and the grey-green leaves are lower down, the flowers appear to float above the plants. I have completely fallen in love with these, and await their return to my garden each spring with true eager anticipation.
My mom grew up with these flowers being abundant in Greece. In fact they are all over Europe, and I was excited to see a whole field of them in bloom when we visited Stonehenge a few years ago. The scientific name is Papaver rhoeas, but they have many common names including Common Poppy, Corn Rose, Field Poppy, and Flanders Poppy. The last name comes from the poem “In Flanders Field” written by John McCrae during the first world war. The poppy seeds do well in soil that has been disturbed, which there was a lot of during WWI. The poppies were noted growing in the battle fields and have since been associated with remembrances of fallen soldiers.
Growing them is easy. Throw some seeds out in the yard and wait. A light and gentle raking of the soil where the seeds are can help, but don’t try to bury them on purpose. Just like California poppies, they are drought tolerant, low maintenance, and will readily self-sow for years of enjoyment. They do die back each season, but I simply cut the plants at the base and lay their remnants right there on the ground. There they become mulch and I can ensure seeds will be there for the following year.
The best time to scatter the super small seeds is either in late fall for overwintering, or in early spring. The seeds are very small, so be careful as you spread them to make sure you don’t get clumps of seeds in the same place. The seedlings start off looking almost like little weeds, so be sure not to pull them out! You’ll start seeing the little hairs on the lobed leaves and that will help to identify them. Keep track of what you have seen as weeds before to help be a comparison.
Here in Central California’s zone 9, the seedlings start to emerge in late spring usually in April and then start to bloom in May. It’s perfect timing as they will start flowering right as the native California poppies in my yard begin to quit. They will continue to bloom into late spring and early summer, especially with a little help from irrigation. It stops raining here usually by April, so sprinklers keep things going a little longer. Otherwise, the poppy seems to tolerate nearly every zone. I have found information suggesting zones 1-10 are all fair game for growing them.
The flowers also come in a variety of color patterns. I started with a packet of seeds from Renee’s Garden Seeds called “Legion of Honor”. From this I have had all red flowers, flowers that have black splotches in the center, flowers with those black splotches edged with white, and flowers with white splotches (these are NOT “Danish Flag” as some websites might claim, that is a very different looking flower). Apparently there are also all white flowers, but I have not had any appear.
- Height: up to 1-2 feet
- Width: up to 2 feet
- Sun: full sun to part shade
- Water: drought tolerant
- Soil pH: 6.5 – 7.5
- Soil type: tolerates a wide range of soils, but won’t do well in loose sand or overly wet clay
- Key nutrients: balanced
- Planting time: scatter seeds in late fall, or early spring in zone 9