Plant Spotlight: Poppies

It’s been a while since I’ve shared a Plant Spotlight post, and I realized as seed packets are arriving in the mailbox, poppies are one of the varieties I’m most excited to grow in 2023. Back in elementary school, I remember vividly that each year we celebrated National Poppy Day when learning about the significance of Memorial Day. We would all gather around the flagpole and hold a ceremony where we read the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D. The band would then lead a parade to the Town Hall, where veterans would educate us about what Memorial Day signifies. In addition, in the week leading up to this ceremony, there was a school-wide poppy poster contest each year. In third grade, I remember winning the contest with my poster entitled ‘Even Scarecrows Love Poppies,’ an artistic Crayola creation of a scarecrow in a field of red poppies and crows swooping down to pick them. Isn’t it amusing what memories we hold on to in our minds? Little did I know then that I’d be growing and enjoying poppies in my garden years later.

Poppies and Ranunculus Looking Colorful and Graceful in a Vase

After World War I, poppies flourished in Europe, and scientists believe this was partly due to the lime in the soil from the rubble left behind in the wake of the war. The red poppies that grew became a symbol of the blood shed during battle and a remembrance of the soldiers who died. John McCrae’s poem, written while serving on the front lines, further perpetuated this symbolism. In 1920, the poppy became the official flower of The American Legion to memorialize the soldiers who lost their lives, and National Poppy Day became recognized as the Friday before Memorial Day.

Poppies Have Become Symbols of Remembrance
National Poppy Day Is the Friday before Memorial Day

Poppies have had other historical symbolism in many cultures, representing peace, sleep, and death. This symbolism is most likely due to the sedative properties of opium, a drug extracted from poppy seeds of certain varieties. These fragile, papery-petaled beauties have been cultivated since 6000 BC and have medicinal, culinary, and ornamental purposes depending on the type. While these delicate flowers have a relatively short bloom window, the gorgeous billowy blooms are attractive to humans and pollinators alike.

These Fragile, Papery-Petaled Beauties Have Been Cultivated since 6000 BC
Gorgeous Billowy Blooms Are Attractive to Humans and Pollinators Alike

For cut flower growers, there are four main varieties of poppies grown for cuts: Iceland, Breadseed, Shirley, and California. While Iceland poppies need to start indoors, the others prefer direct sowing in the fall or as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. These varieties typically resent transplanting, but they will self-sow if allowed to, providing years of volunteer blooms. Breadseed generally is the easiest to grow of these varieties, while Iceland is the most challenging.

Giant Rattle Breadseed Poppies Stand Tall in the Flower Patch
While the Flowers Are Pretty, This Variety Is Mainly Grown for Its Pods
Amazing Grey Shirley Poppies Have a Unique Coloration
This Shirley Poppy Variety Is Simply Stunning

Poppy flowers should be harvested in the cracking bud stage when the buds are just starting to open, and a sliver of color is present. They will continue to open once picked and placed in water. To extend the vase life, immediately sear the ends of the freshly cut stems with a flame or in boiling water for 7-10 seconds before placing them in fresh water.

I grew poppies for cuts for the first time this past growing season. My favorites are the peony types with double blooms and swoon-worthy colors. The flowers are breathtaking but, unfortunately, only last a few days. While the vase life of poppies is often short, their impact in bouquets and arrangements is worth the effort to grow them, in my opinion. Also, they are pollinator magnets, and I loved watching the bees constantly dive in and out of the blooms. Other Breadseed varieties were also favorites with their beautiful seedpods that are left behind once the petals fall. These pods are equally intriguing and add a touch of whimsy to arrangements. You can use the pods, both fresh or dried.

Breadseed Poppy Seed Pods Add a Touch of Whimsy
You Can Use Seed Pods Both Fresh or Dried in Arrangements
Pollinators Love Poppies and Growers Can Use Both the Blooms and Seed Pods

To save poppy seeds, pick the pods as they turn from green to brown and when the vents around the crown open. Then, you can place the pods upside down in a paper bag to collect the seeds as the pods continue to open. Alternatively, if you don’t mind them self-sowing, leave the pods on the plants, and as they open, they will scatter the seeds in the garden for you.

Wait until Green Pods Turn Brown and the Vents Open to Harvest for Seed
Or You Can Let Your Poppies Self-Sow
This Beauty Is a Variety Called Flemish Antique

One word of caution, I learned in growing poppies this past season that they are like candy to slugs and aphids. So be on the lookout for these pests and take measures to prevent them from destroying your plants. Otherwise, in my experience, they seem relatively problem free.

Aphids and Slugs Love Poppies
So Be Sure to Monitor You Plants Frequently for Pests

While the short vase life of poppies had me consider leaving them off my 2023 grow list, the beauty of the flowers and the pollinator benefits convinced me to give them another try. And so, I plan on growing several Breadseed varieties, including ‘Hungarian Blue’ and the peony types ‘Pink Peony,’ ‘Flemish Antique,’ ‘Black Peony,’ ‘Purple Peony,’ and ‘Frosted Salmon.’ Hopefully, they will flourish and add beauty to the farm and bouquets. And if they do, I certainly can expect the bees, and myself, to be happily whistling among the poppy blooms.

The Peony Poppy Varieties Are My Favorite
I Couldn’t Resist Keeping Poppies on My Grow List for 2023

Sources: Poppies, National Poppy Day, Poppies as Cut Flowers

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