Poppies are an old time finicky favorite


I often get asked about raising poppies. In my opinion they are among the most beautiful flowers.  However, most types are difficult to establish, especially the large flowered types.

I’ve seen clumps of poppies that were far older than me, but it’s been my experience that getting plants past their second season is the problem. Sometimes folks struggle because they don’t know how poppies grow.

Poppies go into dormancy in summer. Their foliage dies back to the ground and people try to stop it by fertilizing, cultivating or overwatering. This treatment can kill the plants before they break dormancy. Poppies take patience, especially in zones warmer than seven. Poppies don’t like heat.

Some people lose their poppies right off the bat. Plants have a taproot system just like a carrot. Transplanting is difficult and if done at a stressful time like a hot dry period, plants won’t recover. That’s the main reason gardeners often kill their poppies when they try to move them.

Here’s the environment that will make poppies thrive. They like a soil pH that is approaching neutral and must have full sun for eight hours or so. Soils must be well drained, especially in winter. That’s when most root damage occurs. Poppies aren’t heavy fertilizer users, and early spring is the only appropriate time to feed them.

Poppies may be established by seed. Believe it or not it’s usually better to direct seed them rather than transplant seedlings. When transplanting established plants, prepare a deep bed as poppies have long taproots. Avoid planting them during hot weather and try not to disturb the root system.

Once established, a clump of poppies can remain healthy for decades. Unlike other perennials, they don’t need to be moved or split up every few years. A little weeding and a light application of mulch in late fall is all that’s necessary.

Other than establishment difficulties, the biggest problem with poppies is that their blooming season is short. They’re gorgeous for a few weeks in late spring, but after that they wither and die back. Only the distinctive seedpods remind us they were ever there.

Many folks save the pods as they are attractive in dried floral arrangements. Some even save the seeds to use in baking. Poppy seeds provide us with linoleic acid, one of the essential fatty acids. Sometimes you will see it referred to as Omega-6.

Once plants die back in early summer, their space may be filled with annuals or later blooming perennials. When the weather cools in the fall, poppy foliage will reemerge. This helps energize the roots for the following spring. Even a light frost will kill this lush growth to the ground but that’s fine.

For those who have outdoor pets, poppies contain chemicals called alkaloids, which are toxic. Alkaloids are bitter tasting substances, and dogs and cats generally don’t seek them out or like them. I’ve never heard of anyone losing a pet to poppies. However, if you fear your pet might have consumed some you should consult your veterinarian.

My sister-in-Law's favorite flower

My sister-in-law  Teresa’s favorite flower

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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