Growing Poppies for Wildlife

As we think ahead to warmer weather many gardeners will be looking forward to the opening of some of the brighter blooms that herald high summer in our gardens, especially the beguiling poppies.   Poppies of all kinds flower from June onwards and dazzle us with their bright silky petals – some of them ephemeral flowers that last just one day.  There are poppies of many kinds that are easy to cultivate in gardens and only a few are the bright lipstick red of our wild natives.  Others varieties occur in subtle shades of pink and mauve, bright yellow and orange or pure white.  There is a poppy for every garden colour scheme and now is the time to sow seeds.

Poppies are wildlife-friendly plants too, having abundant, accessible pollen for bees, hoverflies, and other pollen dependant insects, so we can grow these flamboyant beauties in the knowledge that they will be encouraging wildlife to our gardens.  Butterflies are not attracted to poppies however, as they do not produce nectar in any quantity, nor do they have a flower structure that allows nectar to collect.

Poppies come in all types – annuals, biennials and perennials – which means there is likely to be something suitable for anywhere in the garden. Our own native red poppies fall into the annual category and there are four separate species, although to the untrained eye they look very similar.  Common or corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is the species we are mostly familiar with, a stunning plant that sometimes appears in abundance in cornfields in mid summer, creating swathes of bright red throughout cultivated fields.  The other native species – long headed poppy, rough poppy and prickly poppy - differ from the common species mainly in the shape and form of their seed heads.  These species look at their best in wilder areas of the garden, especially when combined with flowers of contrasting colours such as cornflowers or corn marigolds, or perhaps the garden annuals larkspur or white snapdragon. 

Beautiful as the common poppy may be, it has spawned offspring that to my mind are even more attractive in the right garden setting. The Shirley poppies, developed in 1880s by the Reverend W Wilkes, and named after his parish of Shirley, are our own wild corn poppies in a variety of shades and forms.  These single and semi double flowers come in a range of colours from white and pale pink to dark pink, mauve and even smoky grey.  In my garden a favourite variety of the Shirley poppy is Mother of Pearl which appears in soft subtle colours, popping up every spring in unexpected places.  Although some are double petalled, the pollen is still accessible to insects.

There are other plants in this annual group and the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is well known to most gardeners.  This is another plant that springs up unexpectedly from long buried seed and can take many forms from single petalled varieties to densely double ‘peony-flowered’.  As long as the anthers are visible and the pollen accessible, these plants, like their native cousins, are excellent for bumblebees.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is another familiar member of the poppy family.  Again it is widely grown by wildlife gardeners for its ability to provide pollen for bees and hoverflies.  It is perfect for including in a vegetable garden as an insect attractant, as its bright orange flowers complement the rich variety of greens of leafy crops and salad vegetables.  If the bright orange is too much for you, you could try some of the more subtly coloured varieties such as the Ballerina series, which come in a range of pink, white and yellow.

A few members of the poppy family are biennials or short-lived perennials.  These include both the Iceland and alpine poppies, which have delicate flowers in shades of yellow, orange and white.  These plants are especially suitable for rock gardens, the alpine types growing to only 15 or 20 cms while the Iceland poppies reach about 30 cms. 

Of the perennial poppies the most familiar is the flamboyant oriental poppy, Papaver orientale.  This is a wonderful plant if you like your flowers with blowsy blooms and a distinct lack of delicacy!  And yet in spite of their rather vulgar nature, the flower petals are gorgeously silky, and the flower buds have a charm of their own.  These beauties come in named varieties, the best known perhaps being Perry’s White, which has satiny white flowers with dark purple centres, and Mrs Perry which has large salmon pink flowers.  In spite of their over-blown appearance, these plants are still wildlife friendly producing copious amounts of pollen.

Another attractive perennial and a favourite in my garden is our native Welsh poppy, a member of the Meconopsis genus.  This plant is no trouble, seeding gently into gravel paths or well drained soil where little else will establish with ease.  Its lemon yellow flowers or orange flowers brighten any corner and unlike many other poppies, it does not object to a little light shade.  It is robust and upright, the flowers emerging from a small tuft of light green leaves.  There are other colour forms including red and double flowered varieties in cultivation, but the native is the most attractive to insects.

Meconopsis of course includes the stunning blue poppies, often called the Himalayan poppies.  These are rather more of a specialist plant requiring exacting conditions - shade and a good humus-rich neutral or acidic soil.  The difficulties of raising and cultivating them is well worth it of course for the stunning sky blue flowers, but some species are short lived and other are monocarpic which means they die immediately after flowering.  Of all the poppies mentioned, these are the most difficult to grow and for me, one of the attractions of the other species is the ease with which they can be sown, and continue to self-sow with abandon.

With such a wealth of variety in just one group there must be something for everyone amongst the poppy family.  With annuals and perennials in colours ranging from bright orange to soft mauve, we can all find something to brighten up the summer amongst these versatile wildlife friendly plants.

Propagation of poppies from seed and cuttings

Annual and biennial poppies, including our native wildflowers, are best sown from seed directly where they are to flower in March or April.  Most poppies have tap roots and are not easy to move once established.  The wild corn poppy, its cousins the Shirley poppies and the opium poppies all require some light for the seed to germinate. Sow thinly onto well cultivated weed free soil and then firm the seed into the soil with the flat of the hand or walk over larger areas, pressing the seed gently into the soil.  Once established, these species will self-seed, especially where the soil is regularly cultivated.  Turning the soil with fork or spade brings buried seed to the surface, allowing germination to occur.  Some poppy seeds require a period of cold weather in order to germinate well.

The perennial varieties, especially the oriental poppies, may be sown into small pots or seed trays in March and pricked out when large enough to handle.  The oriental poppies can also be propagated from root cuttings.  Some species of the blue poppies can be divided after flowering.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017