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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Poppy: A Remembrance of Fallen Heroes

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: May 6, 2013

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses row on row”

These opening lines from the poem ‘Flanders Fields’ were written in 1914 by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. The hauntingly beautiful words of McCrae immortalized poppy as one of the most recognized memorial symbols to honor soldiers who died in combat. Nearly a century later the poppy still symbolizes Memorial Day and is used to honor our fallen military heros. May is an appropriate month to take a closer look at this colorful flower steeped with symbolism.

The poppy referred to by McCrae is known today as the Corn poppy or Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas). It is a common flower native to Europe that grew wild in the cemeteries of Europe used to bury fallen soldiers of World War I. It is from this poppy that the garden poppies we know as Shirley poppies were developed.

Poppies belong to the Papaveraceae (or poppy) family which contains 30 genera and about 600 species. There are both annual and perennial species of poppies. Most are cold tolerant and prefer locations with relatively cool summers. The Oriental poppy and Iceland poppy are two of the most familiar perennial types. Among the annual poppies (in addition to Flanders poppy) is the more notorious opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Although it bears a flower that is quite attractive, the opium poppy is illegal to grow in Missouri.

The Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) has the distinction of being the most popular garden poppy. It produces large orange-red flowers that are spectacular. Its flowers are from 3½ to 4 inches in diameter and have petal with a crepe-paper texture. Borne singly on wiry stems, they are held well-above the foliage. The latter is low-growing and sharply toothed, with a bristly feel. Broken stems and leaves yield a white, milky sap. Like most poppies, the Oriental poppy is not suited for extremely hot summers and usually responds by going dormant when warm temperatures arrive. In Missouri, it flowers in the spring (usually April) and will seemingly disappear from the landscape by July because of the heat.

Oriental poppy prefers well-drained soil and a sunny exposure. Care should be taken not to overwater it during its dormant period which, in many cases, extends throughout the winter. It can be planted with other species of annuals and perennials that will provide color in the area once the poppies go dormant. Oriental poppy can be started from seeds but will not flower until the second (or third) year. In addition to the orange-red mentioned above, other flower colors include rose, salmon, pink and white.

Established plants of Oriental poppy can be divided after they have developed significant size. This usually requires about five years. Division should be done after flowering occurs and while the plants are dormant. Dividing early in the spring usually eliminates flowering that season and may encourage crown rot, especially during a wet spring.

Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule) prefers cool climates and tends to be short-lived in Missouri. Because of this, gardeners in our state probably should treat it as an annual or biennial. Iceland poppy has flowers that are very colorful and distinctive; some of the more durable varieties (e.g. ‘Champagne Bubbles’) are rewarding even though their bloom-period is short-lived.

If annual poppies interest you, then (previously mentioned) Shirley poppy is hard to beat. The term ‘Shirley’ poppy is given to any cultivar of Papaver rhoeas. Some cultivars are quite colorful, have flowers that have been likened in texture to tissue paper, and are fairly easy to grow from seed. As a general rule, poppies do not transplant well; therefore, annual types should be seeded directly into the garden where they are to grow. If started indoors, do so in a cool location and seed them in peat pots or other biodegradable containers that can be planted along with the plant into the ground. This practice will minimize root disturbance and maximize transplanting success. Poppies tend to reseed themselves very readily and can become somewhat of a weed in the annual flower garden. To prevent this from happening, simply remove seed pods before they mature and shed seed.

A second type of poppy treated as an annual in Missouri actually was developed from the opium poppy. Unlike opium poppy, it is legal to grow in Missouri. Peony-flowered poppy (Papaver somniferum var. paeoniflorum) bears spectacular, fully double flowers up to five inches in diameter that are tightly packed with lacey petals. It is available in shades of red, pink, purple, and white and requires much the same care as Shirley poppy.

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REVISED: March 5, 2013