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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.
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Oriental Poppies

In search of orange-flowered perennials for my orange and blue Illini garden, Oriental Poppies (Papaver orientale) were a natural choice. The plants I used in my Illini garden were divided off a large clump that I planted years ago at my parents' home. I don't know the name of the cultivar, but their glowing orange petals are striking this time of year.

As the name suggests, Oriental poppies did originate in Asia. The BBC lists them as being brought to England as early as 1714.

The warmth of May and June is prime time for viewing the spectacular show poppies perform in the garden. Most Oriental poppies will reach a maximum height of about three feet while flowering.

Unfortunately, their show is short-lived. Most of the time individual flowers last only a day or two. Their flat-topped seed pods remain, and as they dry you can shake them and hear thousands of tiny seeds rattling inside.

Sometimes gardeners panic at the sight of Oriental poppies after flowering has finished for the year. Flowers are replaced with seed pods, and thick mounds of foliage are a withered brown shadow of their former self. This is completely normal.

The poppy essentially goes dormant during the hot dry summer in order to survive. Dying back after flowering is an adaptation that Oriental poppies evolved in response to the summer drought of central Asia. In my opinion, this adaptation comes in pretty handy for central Illinois as well!

Usually the poppies resume growth as the weather cools in autumn. I've read that sometimes they will flower a second time, but personally I've never had that happen in my garden.

To minimize the "hole" left in your garden after the poppies are done blooming, plant them alongside plants that bloom later in the season. Later blooming plants will fill in the gap nicely.

If you are a gardener that finds themselves short on time (aren't we all?!) poppies are a great choice for your garden. They basically thrive on neglect, preferring to be left alone in their corner of the garden.

If you are a gardener that likes to move plants around in your garden, resist the urge to move Oriental poppies. They really hate to be moved, and will express their displeasure with wilted or dying foliage, and may refuse to flower that year.

If you have to move or divide your poppies, the best time to do this is the fall, so the plant can recover over the winter. It is also possible to do this in the spring, but do so as early as possible. The closer you get to the time Oriental poppies naturally flower, the higher the chance that you will lose that year's flowers in the process.

Despite how finicky they are about being moved, poppies are extremely durable plants. About the only thing they can't stand in the garden is wet feet. Make sure that they have a well drained location, preferably in the sun, and they should perform well.

If you live in an area where deer view your garden as the local smorgasbord, rest easy. Oriental poppies are considered to be deer resistant.

Like a lot of plants, the wide variety of poppies available speaks to the collector in me. When you start looking, the diversity in flower shape, size and color is amazing.

Flowers typically have a single layer of tissue thin petals, but there are some with a double layer of petals, and varying degrees of ruffling and frayed edges. The typical color is orange to crimson-red, but there are several gorgeous salmon and true pinks available, as well as some white cultivars and even a few purple ones.

There are many species of poppy besides the Oriental Poppy. One of the more famous species is Papaver rhoeas, the red-flowered corn poppy mentioned in the poem "In Flanders Fields" by WWI Canadian soldier John McCrae. Inspired by this poem about WWI battlefields in Europe, American professor Moina Michael wrote the poem "We Shall Keep the Faith" in 1918 and vowed to wear a red poppy to always remember those that died serving their country.

By 1922 the idea of wearing a red poppy to honor fallen soldiers had evolved into the VFW's Buddy Poppy® program, where disabled veterans help assemble silk poppies commonly available around Memorial Day, the holiday where we remember those that died in service to the United States of America.

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