Oriental poppies

Their blooms bring standout beauty to a sunny summer border.


Nothing quite compares to the blowsy beauty of the oriental poppy. These relatively quick-growing perennials with just-look-at-me flowers are the quintessential early summer big statement performer for a sunny border.

The stout stems and highly dissected leaves are clothed in bristly white hairs, growing from 18in to 4ft in height. The buds open like a coiled parachute, the crinkled petals opening out into large flat saucers in shades of red, pink, salmon to dark plum and white. The base of the petals may be blotched in another colour or black and in a few the petal rim is picoted, or jagged and/or ruffled to dramatic effect. They look good with early roses and silvery foliage and ideal if starting a new garden and you want something to make a statement.

After they have finished, cut the stems down to enable the rootstock to build up energy for next year’s display and dry the young seed pods for use in flower arrangements. Plants then go dormant over summer, the tuft of leaves reappearing again in late summer and autumn. Coming from the hot, dry Caucasus, Turkey and northern Iran gives a clue as to why they do this. So you will need perennials such as grasses and rudbeckia that perform later in the year to help fill the gap.

Oriental poppies can live for a number of years, ideally in full sun and well-drained soil. They hate constant wet, particularly in winter and if the soil is too rich or over-fertile they tend to overgrow and collapse when the top-heavy flowers open. Humidity also encourages mildew.  It’s best to treat them a little on the mean side and once established leave them alone. That said if the weather turns wet provide support to help keep them upright.

Although easily grown from seed, named varieties need to be propagated vegetatively from division or root cuttings in late summer and early autumn to keep them true to form.