Oriental poppies are a mixture of five or six different species. As a result they vary in height, colour and form. However all provide tissue-paper flowers with pepper-pot middles before most other summer-flowering perennials open so they are extremely useful to the gardener. Their sumptuous flowers only shine for ten days or so and they don’t give a long-lasting display, but despite that these easy-to-grow divas deserve a place in every garden.
'Beauty of Livermere' (now listed under Goliath Group) makes a statement with its light-green foliage and post office box red flowers and this erect, poised plant never looks coarse. 'Raspberry Queen' (once described by nurseryman Bob Brown as Barbara Cartland leaning slightly with running mascara) is a bright-pink upright oriental poppy of great charm. It reaches three feet in height (90 cm). Both of these hold their colour in full sun and both make willowy statements. However if you want a poppy that fits into the mixed border easily the smaller-flowered 'Karine' (2 ft) has shell-pink saucers neatly blotched in beetroot-red. There are lots of oriental poppies to choose from, but misnaming is rife. Buy your oriental poppies in flower if at all possible.
Some of the best varieties of oriental poppies
Patty flowers earlier than most, but tends to fade in sun. Planted underneath twisted hazel it opens its plummy-mauve flowers just as the hazel leaves open. Discovered by Sandra Pope (once at Hadspen House) on the compost of heap of a nearby Somerset nursery woman - Mrs Patty Marrow (up to 3 ft).
A seedling from Patty’s Plum with blue-toned lilac flowers - position in shade (up to 3 ft).
The first delicate pale salmon-pink poppy of all with strong stems carrying delicate flowers neatly marked in purple-black at the base of each petal (3 ft/90 cm).
Semi-double, dark pink flowers on short stems above a thick clump of long, mid-green leaves (2 - 3 ft/60-90 cm).
'Cedric Morris' AGM
Large bowl-shaped single flowers in soft grey-pink with large black blotches. Sir Cedric (a noted painter) referred to this pink as dirty knickers, but gardeners love it (up to 3 ft/90 cm).
'Grauwe Witwe' (Grey Widow)
Palest grey flowers that look almost ghostly - needs a bright companion or a dark background to look good (up to 3 ft/90 cm).
'Black and White' AGM
The best black and white form with ruffled white petals and purple-black blotches (28 in/55 cm).
Fringed, vibrant red flowers held on straight stems. A pure and elegant poppy (2 - 3 ft/up to 60 cm)
Fringed salmon-pink flowers with a crêpe paper texture (up to 3 ft/90 cm).
How to grow oriental poppies
These are undemanding, easily grown stalwarts of the flower border. They prefer an open, sunny position on reasonably drained soil.
Oriental poppies are very long-lived and have deep roots. This makes them difficult to eradicate, so only plant them where you want them. Otherwise you’ll never get rid of them.
Once your poppies have flowered deadhead them to prevent unwanted seedlings.
What to grow oriental poppies with
Most oriental poppies are summer dormant and they die back to nothing soon after flowering - leaving an unsightly gap in the border.
There are two ways round this problem. You can grow them with later-flowering asters, heleniums and rudbeckias: these plants will hide the gap the poppies leave.
Or you can plug the gap by adding short-term fillers like penstemons, cosmos, or dahlia. Plant these close to the poppies in June.
Nepeta 'Six Hill’s Giant' is also a good companion because this billowing plant flows over the gap.
Oriental poppy propagation
These tap-rooted plants can only be reproduced properly by root cuttings. Once they have died down completely (August to September in most cases) lift them and remove a section of root. Replant the rest and give it a good watering.
Cut your root into one-inch sections making a slanting cut at the lower end and a flat cut at the top. Then immerse your cuttings (slanted end down) into a tray of gritty compost with the flat end level with the compost. After two months leaves should appear and these rooted pieces can be potted up individually. You can use this technique with eryngiums and verbascums, but their later dormant period means lifting these in winter.
Did you know...?
Amos Perry (1871 - 1953) bred the first oriental poppy that wasn’t a coarse, bright-orange at his Enfield Nursery. He selected a salmon-pink seedling from a field of thousands of orange ones and named it 'Mrs Perry' after his first wife Nancy. When 'Mrs Perry' was launched in 1906 it caused a sensation. However Perry wanted to breed a white oriental poppy, but it kept on eluding him. One day he got an irate letter from a customer complaining that her peachy 'Mrs Perry' was a fat, ugly white poppy. An indignant exchange of letters followed and eventually Amos Perry (who valued his clientele greatly) went down to placate his belligerent customer clutching several 'Mrs Perry' plants. He was delighted to see his elusive white oriental poppy growing in her garden. It was duly dug up and appeared as 'Perry’s White' in 1912.
In all, Perry bred eleven oriental poppies and they include the black and red fringed 'Lord Lambourne' (1920) (likened to old military tunics) and the orange-scarlet, ruffled 'Marcus Perry'. The latter is still available.
Beth Chatto Gardens - www.bethchatto.co.uk
Cotswold Garden Flowers - www.cgf.net