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growing poppies from seed

Poppies: It's Against The Laws of Gardening To NOT Grow Them!

One of our customers reached out to us through our Facebook page to ask if we'd post an article on poppies. She shared the following story with us because she says (half-jokingly) that she's spent her whole life dealing with the emotional trauma associated with these (mostly) innocent ornamentals. Here's what Michelle had to say:

"I grew up in California. I was probably only five when, on a hiking trip with family friends, I came upon a patch of pretty, golden flowers. I stepped off the trail and picked one, and went to show it to one of the older kids in our group. 'Throw it away!' the girl screeched. 'It's illegal to pick the state flower! You could go to JAAYUUUL!"

Michelle said that she spent the rest of the day, and the better part of the week, completely paranoid that she'd end up in prison with "those bad Manson Family ladies." She says she may or may not have tried to bribe her friend with a Payday bar to keep her mouth shut. Had she known the phrase, "snitches get stitches," she'd probably have been desperate enough to use it.

Nobody ratted her out, and as far as we know, nobody's ever spent serious time for violating California poppies. But one North Carolina man got flat-out busted for growing an acre of Papaver somniferum at his home. Most folks don't know that "opium poppies" are widely grown as ornamental species, but this fella wasn't going for any garden club least, not according to the DEA.

Good news, Michelle! You can pick all the California poppies you want if you grow them at home from seed. And if you want to grow any type of ornamental poppies simply for the sake of their beauty, nobody's going to be throwing flash-bang grenades through your windows at 2:00 am.  

Poppies at a glance

There are two main poppy groups: The Papaver and Eschscholzia genera. The former includes the tall, upright varieties, while the low-growing, fine-leafed species belong to the latter. Both are classified under the Papaveraceae (poppy) family.

Eschscholzia poppies

There are only 12 species in this genus, which is native to arid, sandy regions from Baja north to Oregon, with pockets native to New Mexico and Nevada. The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is typical of the average species, growing from about 6" to 18" tall (overall) and 12" wide. E. californica foliage is gray-green, with feathery, lush, deeply-pinnate leaves 3/4" to 2" in length. Four-petaled gold or yellow flowers grow from single, upright stems, and the flowers' orange anthers are broadly spread in the center of the blooms.

The genus is named for Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz (1793-1831) who, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden, accompanied famed explorer Otto von Kotzebue on his first expedition around the world between 1815 and 1818.

Eschscholzia poppies are classified as herbaceous perennials in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 10, and they're easily grown as annuals elsewhere.

  • Bloom time: June through July
  • Bloom colors: Red, yellow, orange, cream
  • Sunlight requirements: Full sun
  • Moisture requirements: Drought-tolerant; intermittent deep watering recommended
  • Soil requirements: Sandy, well-draining soils of poor to medium quality with neutral chemistry (6.5 to 7.5 pH)

Eschscholzia poppies have deep taproots, allowing them to access moisture well below the soil surface. Most species thrive in the Mojave Desert, which receives an average of 5" annual rainfall...mostly in the winter months. Space your poppies 12" apart, or just toss them out willy-nilly for a carpet of gold.

Papaver poppies

The genus name is from the Latin phrase "sleep-bringing," but these poppies will truly liven up your garden at every step of their development. Their blue-green narrow, lobed, spear-shaped leaves, which can be 6" long in the base clusters, resemble those of broccoli plants. Tall, hair-covered sturdy stems bear single blossoms at the top, which unfurl from silvery-haired plump, green buds. (Note, little kids, love to make "boats" out of the empty bud husks, as the hairs help them float on the water.)

Papaver poppies typically grow 12" to 24" tall and up to 2' wide, and should be spaced no fewer than 18" apart.

Papaver flowers vary among species and type, with four to dozens of crepe-textured petals. Their anthers may be yellow, white, or even black, and poppy colors and patterns are nearly endless. The blooms are short-lived, but they give way to attractive sage-green seed pods. These develop "vents" at their tops, from which hundreds of seeds eventually drop to the soil below.

Poppy foliage is frost-tolerant. The flowers? Not so much. The plants are classified as herbaceous perennials in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 7, but they're typically grown as an annual.

  • Bloom time: June through July
  • Bloom colors: All shades of pink, yellow, orange, red, and lavender with multiple color patterns and leaf layers
  • Sunlight requirements: Full sun
  • Moisture requirements: Drought-tolerant; intermittent deep watering recommended. Tolerates consistently-moist soil
  • Soil requirements: Sandy, well-draining soils of poor to medium quality with neutral chemistry (6.5 to 7.5 pH)

Papaver poppy flowers are lovely arrangement specimens for the short time they last. You'll find their dried or fresh pods more useful and durable in your floral designs.

The poppy's cultural significance

During the Great War, a species native to Europe grew abundantly on the graves of fallen soldiers. In 1914, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the famed poem "In Flanders Fields," immortalizing poppies as the symbol of remembrance. This species, Papaver rhoeas, is colloquially known as the "Flanders poppy," "Shirley poppy," or "corn poppy." It's the inspiration for the Veterans of Foreign Wars' (VFW) "Buddy Poppy" program, founded in 1923. Disabled veterans to this day earn money by assembling these cheery fabric poppy pins, which are distributed on Memorial Day to remind citizens of our soldiers' ultimate sacrifices.

Pharmaceutical and illicit poppy cultivation

All poppies have a history as a medicinal plant. Native Americans used the roots of Eschscholzia poppies in roasted or tea form to relieve pain, headaches, and insomnia.

Studies featured in Science Direct describe the pharmaceutical properties of the alkaloids found in the Papaver genus, most notably P. somniferum. This species, which is not found in the wild, contains morphine, codeine, and dimethyl morphine. Unprocessed opium consists of "at least 10 percent morphine." The sap is harvested from the bulbous seed pods while they're still green and fleshy.

The History Channel website has a great overview of the poppy's medicinal properties. According to them, ancient Sumerians called P. somniferum the "joy plant" back in 3,400 BC, and over time, poppy's popularity and the practice of cultivating it for its medicinal properties spread to Greece, Persia, and Egypt. Of course, we've all heard of its use in China, and the lore surrounding "opium dens," and anybody who's seen the movie Tombstone knows about opium derivative. According to the DEA Museum (OMG, THAT would be an awesome class trip), the top three sources for illegal opium are Afghanistan, Colombia, and Burma. Not Great-Auntie Ethel's front yard.

In the Victorian era, European gardeners became hooked on cultivating Papaver poppies as ornamental plants, and their popularity in Western gardens took off from there. That's really why you're thinking of growing your own poppies from seed. Right?

Is it okay to grow Papaver somniferum in the garden?

The short answer? Yes, and...well, sure.

Technically, it's illegal to grow this species in the United States, but busts are all but nonexistent; law enforcement doesn't bother when it appears they're clearly being cultivated in home gardens for their ornamental value. But when they're grown on a larger scale—as with the case of the North Carolina fellow and notable characters in the Netflix series, "Ozark"—they're fair game.

This species is so common in residential landscapes that if law enforcement pushed the issue, they'd have to build prisons to house hundreds of thousands (if not more)  of "outlaw" gardeners. And since we value our freedom, we wouldn't be selling our Somniferum Poppy Seed Mixture in our online catalog if we felt it would land us in the pokey...but we do recommend that you not refer to them as "opium poppies" when your nosy, uptight neighbors stroll by on their way home from church and stop to ask about them.

Poppy seeds and oils

The notorious Papaver somniferum is also commonly known as the "breadseed poppy," because this is the species from which those tiny purple-black seeds on your bagel come from. The small, round, dark seeds—covered in a honeycomb texture—are pressed for oils used in cooking and artists' paints.

If you want to harvest your own poppy seeds, wait until the round seed capsules (which look like rose hips—you can't miss them) dry on the stem, or hang them upside-down in a well-ventilated area with a cloth tied around the pods. When they're fully dried, break them open over a large bowl, blow out any papery husks, and save them for your next baking day.

Poppies in the garden: Uses, pests, and maintenance

Choose the size and variety that suits your aesthetic preferences when growing poppies from seed. All are popular rock garden plants, especially the lower-profile Eschscholzia species. You can mass-plant them for a stunning wildflower effect, or mix them up with other drought-tolerant, sun-loving ornamentals. They make great additions to butterfly gardens, and they also attract bees and beneficial wasps.

Poppies are deer and rabbit-resistant, and while aphids might be an issue with Papaver species, it's rare that they require treatment. As with most drought-resistant plants, overwatering and heavy soils can cause root problems.

Once the petals fall from the flowers, you may want to deadhead Eschscholzia poppies, though their seed pods are shaped like tiny spinning tops. We like to leave Papaver seed pods to dry in situ, though the foliage tends to flounder once the bloom is finished.

Clean up any spent foliage when you're going about your usual fall gardening routine. Otherwise, there isn't much to do to keep poppies healthy, happy, and perky.

Growing poppies from seed

All types of poppies share the same basic growing requirements, and they're very easy to cultivate. We recommend a short cold stratification period of 6 to 12 weeks, though simply storing your seed packets in your crisper drawer for a couple of months is a trick used by gardeners who don't want to mess with damp paper towels and plastic baggies.

  • When to Plant Outdoors: Sow as soon as the soil can be worked in spring, or just before the ground freezes in fall
  • Seed Depth: Surface sow only, gently pressing onto moist soil for good contact, or by scattering. Poppy seeds need sunlight for germination
  • Seed Spacing: See genus profiles above
  • Days to Germination: 7 to 14 days at 55°F to 60°F

Poppies really don't do well if started indoors. Their long taproot is sensitive to disturbance, and poppy seeds generally require cooler-than-room-temperature conditions to germinate. In fact, they like a little bit of frost in their early growth stages.

If you insist on starting your seeds in nursery pots, be sure to use tall biodegradable containers to give the taproots plenty of room. In colder regions, use a cold frame, or start them under fluorescent lights in an unheated garage or cellar.

Keep it legit with Seed Needs

We won't bail you out if you get caught growing a thousand-acre patch of poppies, but we've got your backs if you want to add these colorful, hardy, and history-rich plants to your garden. Contact us today, and we'll get you hooked up! In the meantime, browse our online catalog or gardening blog to help you select your favorite poppy companions and learn how to grow them at home.
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