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.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).