1. By: Jessie Keith

    Poppies are some of the most beautiful garden flowers! (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Nothing is prettier than a field of red, windblown poppies. The delicate blooms rise from slender stems, and their colorful petals resemble crushed tissue paper—giving these classic garden flowers lasting appeal. Poppies are diverse, and can be grown in practically any garden. Some are long-lived perennials while others are fleeting annuals the bloom spectacularly for a short time before setting seed.

    The best poppies for the garden are effortless and big on color and appeal. Most are cool-season spring bloomers, but a select few will weather through the heat of summer. Here are some of our favorites.

    Annual Poppies

    Breadseed Poppies

    The flowers of breadseed poppies are a favorite of bees. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Some of the showiest annual poppies are breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum). They bloom in late spring and die back and set their beautiful flower heads by summer. The tall plants reach 2-3 feet and have lush grey-green leaves. Their  large seedheads are filled with edible seeds that are ready for harvest when the heads dry. Their flowers come in shades of white, red, pink, and purple, and are favored by bees.

    The breadseed poppy ‘Pepperbox’ has beautiful flowers of pink, red, and purple and produces loads of seed for baking. The ~1886 heirloom ‘Danish Flag’ is another select variety with frilly cut petals of red and white. All are sure to self-sow.

    Papaver somniferum is also the source of opium, but cultivated forms are bred just for flower color and seeds. Gardeners should not worry about growing these flowers, if they are purchased from legitimate flower seed vendors. The trade and consumption of Papaver somniferum seed within the United States is unregulated, and it is legal to grow them as garden flowers, but it is illegal to grow forms for opiates. The Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942 made any Papaver somniferum cultivation illegal in the United States, but it was repealed in 1970. Still, unauthorized farming and processing of this plant is a felony crime, so be sure to just grow plants sold in flower catalogs for blooms and seed!

    Peony Poppies

    The frilled puffy blooms of peony poppies resemble powder puffs.

    These plumy poppies grow much like breadseed poppies and are most often sold as glorious doubles that resemble powder puffs. Peony poppies (Papaver paeoniflorum) are old-fashioned and add elegance to late spring gardens. Try Feathered Mix with its lush, fluffy flowers in that come in lots of bright colors, including purple, red, white, pink, and lavender.

    Flanders Poppies

    Flanders are Old-World field poppies that add color to naturalistic gardens.

    These are the black-blotched red field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) that dot roadways and meadows across much of the Old-World and are planted to commemorate fallen soldiers of war. Common red forms are easy to find in seed catalogs, but some have been selected with more delicate colors. The best of these are the English Shirley poppies that may be pink, coral, or white. The pale hues of the Shirley poppies in Old Fashioned Mix are subdued, while Falling in Love has semi-double blooms in brighter shades of coral, pink, and clear white.

    Shirley poppies come in shades of pink, coral, and white and can be semi-double.

    All Flanders poppies should be sown early in cool weather and will bloom by early summer. In midsummer, they set seed. Be sure to shake mature seedheads on the ground to encourage seedlings the following year.

    Western Poppies

    Fields of California poppies fill fields and hillsides across the West. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Two poppies worth mentioning are in the poppy family but not the Papaver genus. These are the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and Mexican tulip poppy (Hunnemannia fumariifolia).

    The bright orange California poppy thrives in cool, spring weather in western states. Its low mounds of grey-green, ferny foliage give rise to loads of cup-shaped flowers that set fields and hillsides on fire with color. Lots of cultivated varieties have been developed that may be ivory, pink, rose, or orange-red. Some are even have double petals.

    California poppies are best grown in cool spring or fall weather. They often self-sow to extend the show the following season.

    Golden, bowl-shaped blooms are highlight of Mexican Tulip Poppies. These rare, heat-tolerant poppies are native to California and adjacent Mexico.

    Perennial Poppies

    Spanish Poppy

    ‘Double Tangerine Gem’ a lovely Spanish poppy for summer gardens. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    This pure orange poppy is one of the most heat tolerant of the perennial poppies. Spanish poppy (Papaver rupifragum) has small clumps of ferny foliage that produce slender stems of soft orange flowers. Plants start to bloom in midsummer and will continue until fall if spent flowers are removed before they set seed. Leave a few seedheads at the end of the season to sprinkle on the ground, to encourage new seedlings the following year.

    Give this poppy soil with excellent drainage. It is so waterwise, it is approved for xeric gardening!

    Icelandic Poppy

    Iceland poppies require cool weather to perform well. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    As the common name suggests, these delicate poppies are adapted to cool weather, but surprisingly, they are not from Iceland, as their common name suggests. They are boreal flowers native across the whole of the north from Europe across to North America. Icelandic poppies (Papaver nudicaule) thrive cool spring weather throughout much of the US, and southwestern winters with mild, cool temperatures. They usually survive as short-lived perennials, so expect to plant them again after three years or so. Plants may die in high summer heat.

    The papery flowers of Iceland poppies come in lots of pretty shades of salmon, orange, pink, white, apricot, and yellow. Try Meadow Pastels, a delicate mix with ruffled flowers in almost every color.

    Oriental Poppy

    Old-fashioned oriental poppies are a perennial border staple.

    The large, bowl-shaped blooms of oriental poppies are distinguished by showy clusters of black stamens in the center of each flower. Theses long-lived perennials bloom in early summer, and traditional forms have classic orange-red flowers with ruffled petals. They have been a mainstay in flower gardens for hundreds of years, and though it sounds like they should come from “the Orient” they are native to northern Turkey and Iran, and the Caucasus mountains.

    Their prickly green foliage appears in spring and nearly disappears by summer’s end. Flower stem height depends on the cultivated variety; taller forms can reach 3 feet. There are many varieties with flower colors that may be white, pink, red, orange, lavender, and burgundy. ‘Beauty of Livermere‘ is a classic red that will add elegance to any garden.

    Growing Poppies

    All poppies need full sun and fertile soil with a neutral pH and good drainage. Before planting, be sure to amend the soil with a fertile amendment, like Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Annual and spring perennial poppies will die back, so be sure to plant other garden flowers among them to fill in the spaces they leave behind.

    A nodding bed of poppies will make any gardener or passerby delight in the beauty of these prized flowers. Plant a few this season to add cheer and bright color to your garden.

    About Jessie Keith


    Plants are the lens Jessie views the world through because they’re all-sustaining. (“They feed, clothe, house and heal us. They produce the air we breathe and even make us smell pretty.”) She’s a garden writer and photographer with degrees in both horticulture and plant biology from Purdue and Michigan State Universities. Her degrees were bolstered by internships at Longwood Gardens and the American Horticultural Society. She has since worked for many horticultural institutions and companies and now manages communications for Sun Gro Horticulture, the parent company of Black Gold. Her joy is sharing all things green and lovely with her two daughters.

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