How to Grow and Care for Poppies

Iceland poppy
Iceland poppy, Papaver croceum

Poppy flowers–members of the Papaver genus–are bright additions to the summer garden. Poppy flowers bear solitary or double cup-shaped flowers from 2 to 4 inches (5-10cm) across. Flowers often have a crepe-papery texture. Colors can be white, yellow, pink, red, orange, salmon, and purple.

There are annual and perennial poppy flowers. Best known are the Iceland poppy, Oriental poppy, and Flanders poppy, also called Shirley poppy. The Iceland and Oriental poppies are short-lived perennials, often grown as annuals. The Flanders poppy is an annual. (See the list of varieties below for fuller descriptions.)

Poppies have long flowering stems that grow from a mound of divided foliage. Leaves are lance-shaped.

Poppies are best grown in mixed borders, meadows, or rock gardens, and also make good cut flowers.

Oriental poppy flowers, Papaver orientale
Oriental poppy flowers, Papaver orientale

Get to Know Papaver–Poppy Flowers

  • Plant type: Hardy annual or perennial
  • Growing Zones and range: Zones 2 to 9
  • Hardiness: Resistant to cole, not tolerant of excessive heat
  • Height and width: 12 to 24 inches (30-61cm) tall or more; 6 to 18 inches (15-45cm) wide
  • Foliage: Deeply cut
  • Flowers: Wide spreading bowl-, cup-, or saucer-shaped single, semi-double, double flowers, crepe-papery texture 2 inches across or more
  • Flower colors: Shades of red, pink, orange, yellow, white, and bicolor
  • Bloom time: Early spring and summer depending on the variety
  • Uses: Seasonal bedding, meadow gardens, cottage gardens, containers
  • Common name: Annual poppy, Iceland poppy
  • Botanical name: Papaver
  • Family: Papaveraceae
  • Origin: Central and South Europe and temperate Asia

Where to Plant Papaver–Poppy Flowers

  • Plant poppies in full sun in Zones 2-6; plant in partial shade in Zones 7-11.
  • Grow poppies in average to humus-rich, well-drained soil.

Papaver Uses

  • Papaver can be added to beds and borders; flowers make a dramatic statement when massed.
  • Smaller cultivars are suited for a rock garden or annual border.
  • Poppies are excellent cut flowers; cut when flowers are in bud and set the stem ends in boiling water or over a flame to prolong the bloom.
Iceland poppy, Papaver nudicaule
Iceland poppy, Papaver nudicaule

When to Plant Papaver–Poppy Flowers

  • In Zones 3-7, sow seeds directly onto prepared soil in early spring, 2 to 3 weeks before the last frost. In Zones 8-10, sow seeds in late autumn. The seeds can be lightly covered with soil.
  • Start seeds of annual varieties indoors in early spring, 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost; start perennial varieties any time spring through summer up to 3 months before the first frost in fall.
  • Set transplants outdoors in mid-spring; transplant carefully as poppies do not want their roots disturbed.
  • Annual poppies do not have long blooming periods, so sow seed successively every two weeks for continual color.
Shirley poppy, Papaver rhoeas
Shirley poppy, Papaver rhoeas

Planting and Spacing Papaver–Poppy Flowers

  • Press seeds into the soil, but do not cover them with soil; instead, cover the flat or pot with black plastic until they germinate; all except Oriental poppies need darkness to germinate.
  • Set the flats or pots in a cool place (55°F/12.8°C) to germinate; germination will occur in 10 to 15 days.
  • Grow seedlings in bright sunlight or a few inches below fluorescent light.
  • Move poppies to individual pots when they become crowded.
  • Space annual poppies 6 to 12 inches (15-30cm) apart; sow plants in groups of a dozen or more for best effect.

How to Water and Feed Papaver–Poppy Flowers

  • Poppies require moderate water; keep the soil evenly moist.
  • Mulch around growing plants with aged compost or chopped leaves to keep moisture in the soil and the soil cool.
  • Fertilize poppies lightly at planting time; poppies do not need fertilizing during the growing season.

Care of Papaver–Poppy Flowers

  • Keep faded flowers picked to prolong blooms.
  • Oriental poppies lose their foliage in midsummer; the foliage will reappear in autumn. Fill the blank spots in the garden with other annuals until the oriental poppies reappear.
  • Avoid overwatering; roots that are too wet can rot or become diseased.
  • Pests are usually not a problem.
  • Protect perennial poppies from winter cold; place 3 to 5 inches (7.6-12cm) of shredded leaves over plants in winter.

Papaver–Poppy Flowers Pests and Diseases

  • Powdery mildew, leaf smut, gray mold, root rot, and damping off can occur.

Papaver–Poppy Flowers Propagation

  • Sow seed in the garden in spring for annuals and biennials.
  • Sow perennials in containers in autumn or spring.
  • Seeds germinate in 7 to 12 days at 65° to 70°F (18-21°C). Plants will be large enough for transplanting in 16 to 25 days. Flowers usually appear 18 to 19 weeks after sowing.
  • Divide perennials in spring or take root cuttings in late autumn or early winter.
Papaver alpinum known as Alpine poppy
Papaver alpinum is known as Alpine poppy

Papaver–Poppy Flower Varieties to Grow

  • Alpine poppy, Papaver alpinum, is a perennial. It grows 5 to 10 inches (12-25cm) high and has 1.5-inch flowers of white, yellow, and pink. The Alpine poppy blooms in spring.
  • Papavar commutatum is a hardy annual that grows to 18 inches (45cm) tall; its flowers are dark red with a black center. This poppy blooms in summer.
  • Iceland poppy (Papaver croceum or P. nudicaule) is a perennial in mild-winter regions; it is commonly grown as an annual. It grows 12 to 24 inches (30-61cm) tall. Flowers are fragrant, 1 to 4 inches (2.5-10cm) across, single or double, and white with yellow, red, orange, rose, or apricot markings. It blooms in spring and will not tolerate summer heat in most zones.
  • Oriental poppy, Papaver orientale, is a perennial. Flowers are 3 inches (7.6cm) across; they are white, orange, pink, red, or salmon with a black center. Plants grow to 4 feet (3.2m) tall and bloom in early summer.
  • Shirley or Flanders poppy, Papaver rhoeas, is an annual. Flowers are 2 inches (5cm) across and red, purple, white, pink, salmon, or orange. It blooms in summer. Plants are 2 to 3 feet (61-91cm) tall.
  • Papaver somniferums is the opium poppy.

Papaver nudicaule — Iceland poppy

Iceland poppy bears translucent overlapping petals that surround a green buttonlike center and a fringe of stamens. The 3- to 6-inch-wide flowers bloom from spring to early summer. Blossoms may be white, cream, yellow, pink, salmon or red. Wiry leafless flower stems arise from a rosette of lobed gray-green leaves. Iceland poppy is native to the Arctic; it needs cool, sunny weather to flourish and is sometimes treated as an annual.

  • Size: 1 ½ feet tall; 6 inches wide.
  • Light: Full sun; partial shade in the South.
  • Soil and moisture: Average, well-drained soil; moderate moisture.
  • Planting and propagation: Seedling resent transplanting. Sow outdoors in fall in mild-winter areas for winter and spring bloom, or indoors in late winter in peat post, for summer bloom in cool, northern areas. Thin to 8 inches apart. Nursery starts available in late winter in the South. Where perennial, divide plants every three years.
  • Special care: Fertilize with high-phosphorous, high-potassium fertilizer once the danger of frost has passed.
  • Pest and diseases: Usually pest-free.
  • Climate: Perennial or biennial in Zones 2-7; may be grown as hardy, cool-season annual in Zones 3 to 11.
  • Cultivars: ‘Champagne Bubbles,’ 3-inch flowers in a mix of pastel red, yellow, cream, orange, pink; ‘Sparkling Bubbles Mix,’ vivid colors; ‘Oregon Rainbow,’ 6-inch flowers, apricot, peach, pink, cream, picotees, doubles, and singles.
  • Garden Use: Plant in informal gardens, meadows, and containers.

Papaver orientale — Oriental poppy

Papaver orientale bears 6- to 10-inch crepe-paperlike blossoms atop tall, prickly stems. Plants bloom for about 10 days in early summer.  Flowers of the species are flaming-red, but cultivars come in shades of pink, orange, red, salmon, raspberry-purple, or white, with showy dark velvety stamens fillng their centers. Black splotches sometimes decorate the petal bases. Some hybrids may be bicolored or double. Plants have deep taproots and basal rosette of coarse thistlelike foliage, which goes dormant by midsummer but produces an overwintering rosette in fall.

  • Size: foliage clumps 2 to 3 feet tall and wide; flower stalks 3 to 4 feet tall.
  • Light: Full sun part shade in hot areas.
  • Soil and moisture: Deep fertile to average, well-drained soil; moderate moisture.
  • Planting and propagation: Plant bare-root plants 1 to 3 inches below the soil surface in late summer or early fall, or plant container-grown plants in spring, spacing 2 feet apart. Needs no division for years, but plants can be divided, if desired, in the fall.
  • Special care: May rot in winter-wet soil. May need staking. Remove faded flower stalks unless seedpods will be harvested.
  • Pest and diseases: Usually pest-free.
  • Climate: Zones 2-7; performs best in cool summer.
  • Cultivars: Early: ‘Dubloon,’ orange with rosy spots; ‘China Boy,’ white with orange edges; ‘Helen Elizabeth,’ crinkled light salmon-pink; ‘Red Flame,’ fiery red; ‘glowing Rose,’ watermelon pink; ‘White King,’ white with purple splotches. Mid: ‘Harvest Moon,’ orange-yellow, double; ‘Cheerio,’ shell pink with rose splotches; ‘Carnival,’ white with orange edges and black splotches; ‘Snow Queen,’ bright white with purple splotches; ‘Raspberry Queen,’ deep red, ‘Beaty of Livermore,’ fire-engine red, Late: ‘Bonfire,’ intense red, double, black splotches; ‘Golden promise,’ golden orange, purple splotches; ‘Spring-time,’ white with pink edges.
  • Garden use: Add to cottage gardens and informal plantings; plant in groups of no more than three to avoid large midsummer gap. Combine with later-blooming or leafy plants, such as baby’s breath, which fills in bare spots.

Poppy Frequently Asked Questions

Q: When do I plant Iceland poppies?

A: Iceland poppies can be grown in all zones. In Zones 2-7 sow seeds in early spring; the plants will likely bloom the first summer but will be especially striking in the second year. In Zones 8-10, sow seeds in late summer for flowers the following spring. Iceland poppies in bloom are commonly sold in garden centers in spring.

Q: Will Oriental poppies planted in spring bloom the same year?

A: Yes, if you purchase large, established plants that are two years old, you will get blooms the same year. Set out established plants in mid-spring and blooms should come in summer.

Q: What care do Oriental poppies need?

A: Oriental poppies do not need much attention. Give them a side-dressing of a balanced fertilizer such as 5-10-5 in spring. Remove spent flowers as they wither.

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