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A Passion For Oriental Poppies

GARDEN TIPS – written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Written June 4, 2015

Many of you know about my passions for trees and Wave petunias, but you don’t know that Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) have become another of my horticultural obsessions. I went crazy for these beauties a while back when I saw some in bloom.  I like a variety of perennial flowers, but I think that Oriental poppies are one of the most spectacular and they make me happy.

I am not an Oriental poppy expert, just a zealous admirer who has been learning to grow these gems for the last few years.  I finally was rewarded with the blooms of a light salmon pink cultivar last year.  I was ecstatic to see the huge dazzling salmon-pink flowers with crinkled tissue-like petals and large purple-black centers.

This year I am even more excited because in addition to the salmon-pink poppy, an orange-red and a bright red cultivar also flowered. I can’t decide which I like best. In addition to their gorgeous flowers, these poppies also have interesting dissected hairy leaves. Unfortunately, wind and rain quickly shortened the life of this year’s blooms, but this has not dampened my enthusiasm for Oriental poppies.

When I first planted Oriental poppies several years ago, I was disheartened when the transplant I had put in my garden shriveled up and faded away as the weather turned hot.  I thought this was due to a lack of water, but after talking to other gardeners I found out it was normal.  Garden references note this habit of dying back in the middle of summer, as well as the poppies’  need for well drained soil and full sun.

Oriental poppies are hardy perennials coming back year after year, growing into larger and larger clumps.  They do best without much attention and don’t like to be moved.  However, if you do need to move them, fall is the best time.

This garden gem is originally native to the subalpine and alpine areas of northeastern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijain, and Iran. It is believed that their habit of dying back and going dormant during the summer is an adaptation to avoid the summer drought that prevails in its native habitat.  Oriental poppies were “discovered” in 1701 and introduced to Europe by a group of plant explorers who collected their seed while on an expedition and sent it back to France and then to England.

Of course, the Oriental poppy found in gardens today is different from the native species the explorers discovered.  That one had standard orange blooms, but plant breeders have worked to diversify the bloom colors for garden growing.  In 1906, a British nurseryman came across a salmon-pink poppy flower amongst the orange he was growing.  Now, there are Oriental poppies with white, red, salmon, orange, orange-red, pink, red, mauve, purple-maroon, and plum colored flowers, some with smooth, ruffled, or fringed petals.

Poppy flowers are ethereal and fleeting, lasting only a few days or less.  Flower stems and seed pods should be removed right after the flower fades to encourage more blooms.  However, some gardeners prefer letting the stalks and seed pods mature and then harvesting them for use in dried arrangements.

In case you are worried, the Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) is not the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) from which opium, poppy seeds, morphine, and codeine are derived.  While the opium poppy has flowers that are similar, the seed pods are rounder, the leaves are not dissected, and the plant is an annual.

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