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Discover Different Kinds Of Poppies
The Many Different Types Of Poppy
Fragile looking and ethereal, different kinds of poppy grow in wild places from the hot deserts of South Africa to the cool foothills of Nepal and from the temperate climate of Northern Europe to the tropical heat of Bolivia.
There is even a poppy that grows on Kaffeklubben Island in the snowy wastes of the Arctic Circle, close to the North Pole.
This extraordinary diversity and adaptation means that almost anywhere that you travel you will find some type of poppy growing. It also means that anyone can grow poppies: you just need to choose one that will be happy in your garden.
And What Colours Can They Come In?
Where Do Poppies Grow?
- moist shady valleys
- arctic waste
- alpine scree
- temperate, arable fields
- maritime shingle
These Californian Poppies Grow In The Desert
These Blue Poppies Grow High In The Cool Mountains Of Tibet
The Unmistakable Seed Heads Of The Poppy
So What Makes A Poppy A Poppy?
Despite their extraordinary range of colour, size and location, poppies all have certain things in common.
To the layman the fleeting flowers, papery petals, drooping flower buds and distinctive seed pods are unmistakable, but to the botanist and the new breed of plant scientists, the real characteristics of plants are found under the microscope and the test tube.
This look at poppies doesn't delve too deeply into the science of plants but in order to make some sense of all the different types of poppy it helps to understand just a little about how they are named and categorized.
I've kept the technical details concise and brief but there are links to more detail for those who might be interested, The one thing I didn't want to do was get in the way of displaying all the beautiful different poppies that grow around the world.
Understanding The Papaveraceae Family
You will find this very simplified explanation of taxonomy (plant naming and codifying) very helpful if you are confused by the names of all the different poppies.
Poppies are part of a large group of flowering plants called the Papaveraceae family. Plants in this family all share certain visible and invisible characteristics.
The Papaveraceae family is subdivided into 44 smaller groups known as Genera depending upon specific characteristics. Three of these genera contain the flowers we most often call 'poppies'.
These are the names of the three main 'poppy' genera:
- Papaver: Corn, Oriental and Opium Poppies (True Poppies)
- Eschscholzia: The Californian Poppy (Desert Poppies)
- Mecanopsis: Welsh and Blue Poppies (Mountain Poppies)
These groups get subdivided yet again into even more specific groups called Species, so for example the Papaver Genus contains Corn, Oriental and Opium Poppies, and the Eschscholzia genera contains the blue poppies and the poppies of the Welsh mountains.
P.rhoeas, P.somniferum, P.orientalis, P. bracteatum
corn poppy, opium poppy, oriental poppy,Iranian/Persian poppy
M, cambrica, M.baileyi
welsh poppy, blue poppy, himalayan poppy
The Papaver Genus
The Papaver genus is the largest group of poppy type flowering plants. There are anything up to 100 different types of poppy that fall into that category. (note that there isn't an exact number). This is because the categorizing and naming of plants is an ongoing and ever changing science.
As plant study becomes more and more exact, botanists constantly review and update their classifications. We lesser mortals find the basic classifications useful, but most of the time, the scientific details and rationale behind classification is beyond our remit and not that relevant to our purposes.
For anyone interested, the complete classification of the Papaver Genus can be found here, along with common names used in different countries : Sorting Papaver
These Are The Most Well Known True Poppies
The Arctic Poppy
The Characteristics Of The Papaver Genus
If you look at the picture above of this European Corn Poppy you can see particular characteristics:
- A bud that droops
- Stems and buds covered with fine hairs
- An upright pepper pot type seed head
These characteristics occur with slight variation in all the poppies within the Papaver Generus. You will find these patterns in Corn, Oriental and Opium poppies and in all their varieties and cultivars.
The Corn Poppy
The Corn Poppy, Also Known As The Field Poppy, European Poppy And Flanders Poppy
This is the European field poppy: Papaver rhoeas; a wild flower of Europe, and considered a weed of arable land. It seeds itself in poor, dry soil, and grows in corn fields and waste lands.
Farmers considered the field or corn poppy a weed to be eradicated during the second half of the 20th century, with the result that it became less and less common, and the sight of a corn field blazing with red poppies became rare.
More enlightened thinking and less use of broad spectrum weedkillers has led to the re-emergence of this native plant, and it can now once more be seen gracing summer fields and roadsides.
Different Varieties Of Corn Poppy: About Varieties And Cultivars
The red corn poppy is a wild flower that grows naturally. It seems that sometimes nature decides to try doing something a little bit different. Just occasionally one plant will develop a slightly different flower colour, shape of petal or some other difference that marks it out from all the other plants.
If that plant then successfully reproduces, that is the start of something called a 'variety' of the basic plant.
Very often some small change gets noticed by human eyes and if those eyes belong to someone who likes to breed plants, the long process of creating a stable and improved strain of that variation begins. Some of the loveliest poppies have come about through this process of selection. These plants are then called 'cultivars'
The Shirley Poppy
How The Shirley Poppy Came To Be
The Shirley Poppy is a multi coloured variation of Papaver rhoeas and there is a lovely history attached to its development.
In 1880 in the parish of Shirley in England, the Reverend William Wilks found a group of unusual field poppies growing where his garden adjoined some arable fields.
These poppies had a white border around the petals and were of a slightly different shade from the other common poppies in the field. He collected the seed and made it his mission to breed a new strain by hybridization.
Eventually he bred a strain of poppies that bore flowers in a range of colours from red to white, and all the pastel shades of pink and mauve in-between.
Other breeder followed him and today there are many different strains that include flowers with double, semi-double and frilled petals in shades and combinations of pink, mauve, red, white, yellow and orange.
Fairy Wings Poppy
Much effort has gone into breeding different strains of annual poppies.
These Fairy Wings poppies are amongst the most ethereally beautiful of all the annual poppies. Their petals are almost transluscent, their stems delicate and their colours subtle.
Papaver Orientale : Oriental Poppy
The poppies that we think of as oriental poppies today are very new to the world. Just as chance and the breeders art developed new cultivars of the wild corn poppy, so the Oriental Poppy has evolved over the last 100 years with even more spectacular results
Nature played its part in creating the modern oriental poppy when three wild poppy species naturally cross fertilized. The wild species of P.Orientale, P. bracteatum and P. pseudo-orientale were brought back to Europe from sub-alpine and alpine zones of north-eastern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and north-western Iran in the 18th century.
These plants became popular due to their ease of cultivation, perennial habit and large bright orange-red flowers and were planted extensively.
The Evolution Of Oriental Poppies
In the early 20th century, an established plant breeder noticed a variation in one of his poppies. Amongst the orange and scarlet flowers, one plant was bearing salmon pink flowers.
The breeder was a man called Amos Perry, and he named the salmon coloured poppy 'Papaver Mrs. Perry' after his wife Nancy. It caused a big stir in the horticultural world and was the first of the many new oriental poppies.
You need to fast forward to the 1970s for the next great development in oriental poppy breeding, to the emergence of the first Zeppelin poppies bred by Countess von Zeppelin in Laufen, southern Germany. These oriental poppies reach new heights of beauty along with a much needed extended flowering period.
It's hard to see how poppies can get any more beautiful, but the holy grail of poppy breeding has yet to be found; a long flowering poppy plant.
Of course there is always room for new surprises: the poppy world was stunned in the 1990s by the extraordinary dull maroon coloured 'Patty's Plum' (pictured below), which first appeared to the world growing in the compost bin of a plantswoman called Patricia Marrow in Somerset, England.
Some Famous And Lovely Oriental Poppy Cultivars
Beauty of Livermere/Goliath
The tallest, reddest, most stunning of the reds
Black and White
The best white cultivar with ruffled white petals and purple-black blotches
Lovely soft grey-pink with large black blotches.
Unusual and lovely plum maroon flowers
A lovely development from Patty's Plum
Gorgeous mid raspberry shade mixed with a little grey
Growing Oriental Poppies From Seed
Oriental poppies are cultivars. That means that the seed of many of them can't be relied upon to produce plants that look like their parents.
A few come true from seed, and of course the exciting thing about growing oriental poppies from seed is that you might just grow the next new sensation by chance.
Papaver Somniferum: The Opium Poppy
This poppy is a native of Asia Minor and is an extremely variable plant that has many naturally occurring varieties and sub species. It can be found growing wild and as a commercial crop in many parts of the world.
The opium poppy is an important crop plant. It is the world's main source of medicinal morphine, culinary poppy seed and poppy seed oil.
It is cultivated in Turkey, India, Australia and England for the food and pharmaceutical industries and grows anywhere that has a temperate climate, good light and reasonable rainfall.
There is something magical about white poppies; I think it's because poppy petals are fragile and ethereal looking.
When they are also white they take on an almost angelic quality. If this poppy is scattered through a flower border it really is a beautiful sight.
These poppies flower on rigid, upright stems making them the perfect no stake, no fuss garden plants.
Papaver Somniferum: The Ultimate Pain Reliever
The alkaloids in the opium poppy provide the essential medicinal drugs Coedine and Morphine. Morphine processed from the poppy plant currently still provides the most effective chemical in the world for the relief of severe pain.
There is fierce debate as to the actual amount of morphine needed throughout the world, but the World Health Organisation states that there is a shortage and as such advocates licensing its wider legal cultivation.
One project under consideration is the inclusion of the Afghan poppy farmers into the world production program in order to re-route their produce and provide them with a sustainable and legal income.
Places Where It's Against The Law To Grow This Poppy
Growing this poppy as a crop for chemical extraction or even culinary purpose without license is prohibited and illegal throughout the world.
However in the western world it is understood that papaver somniferum is also a valuable garden plant and although the detail of the law is vague on this point, poppies growing in gardens are not considered to be illegal. I can find no record showing a prosecution for the ornamental growing of poppies anywhere in Europe or the USA.
One country where it would be a really bad idea to grow Papaver somniferum is The United Arab Emirates, where it is illegal to even own poppy seed; there are reports that a man was imprisoned for removing and keeping poppy seeds from a bread roll.
For athletes, it is well worth noting that experiments carried out on the TV shows MythBusters and Brainiac have shown that although poppy seeds have far less active chemicals, they still contain enough to register as positive in tests after subjects ate a couple of poppy seed bagels.
For more detail on the legal complexities of Papaver somniferum and its constituent chemicals, see : wikipedia / Papaver_somniferum
Papaver Somniferum In The Garden
The opium poppy is gloriously varied and makes a truly wonderful garden plant. It's naturally occurring range of colours and petal forms have given breeders a field day. There are three fairly distinct types:
- Simple flowered
- Paeony flowered
As these poppies vary so easily you will also see variations in the varieties and species that you buy. Whatever P. somniferum seeds you sow, you will always find yet more variations popping up the following year.
Paeony Flowered Poppies
I love these paeony flowered poppies. They look completely exotic and sumptuous scattered through a border a create a real burst of colour and texture to a garden in early summer.
They aren't the sort of poppy that you would try to naturalise; the single flowers work better for that purpose.
The popularity of dark hued flowers gets greater every year and this is an essential plant for anyone wanting to plant a richly coloured garden.
This poppy is just sumptuous. The large, deep wine coloured flower is held on strong stems that don't need staking. This is a breath taking poppy cultivar displaying full peaony characteristics
Papaver Radicatum : The Arctic Poppy
This isn't a poppy for the garden border; it's more one for collectors of small and precious alpine plants. Amazingly this tiny, delicate looking poppy happens to be one of the toughest flowering plants in existence.
Of course if you happen to live in an area that qualifies as arctic tundra then this is the poppy for you.
The Arctic Poppy grows in Scandinavia, Northern Canada and as far north as Kaffeklubben Island at a latitude of 83°40′N .
Along with a purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), it is the northern-most growing plant in the world.
The Arctic Poppy
Within the large Papaveracea family there are certain types of poppies that don't belong to the main sub group known as the Papaver genus.This is generally due to differences in their leaves, flowers or seed heads.
The California Poppy differs from the Papavers by having finely cut leaves and long seed pods that split open from top to bottom unlike the 'pepper pot' seed heads of the Papaver group. It has its own category: Eschscholzia.
Eschscholzia The Desert Poppy
Eschscholzia Californica : California Poppy
In certain states this poppy is considered to be an invasive weed but in California it is honoured each April 6th on California Poppy Day.
This kind of poppy grows and self seeds in poor, dry soils and revels in hot sunshine and like the corn poppy, Papaver rhoeas, it germinates in disturbed soil and often recolonizes after fires.
The photograph below is of Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. At flowering time it must be one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Meconopsis Cambrica : Welsh Poppies
Meconopsis cambrica is a native wild flower that grows amongst rocks and scree in damp and shady places on the Iberian Peninsula, the Pyrenees, the Massif Central and the mountains of Wales and Ireland.
It is a perennial poppy with an exceptionally long, thin taproot and it reproduces freely from the tiny seeds that spill out when it's long seed pod splits open.
Having been planted in gardens it has naturalized widely, even to the extent of popping up between paving gaps in urban environments, seeming able to adapt to dry and bright conditions with ease. I've seen this myself, having found one growing in a crevice on a sunny terrace in London.
The Welsh Poppy has only a few variations and cultivars, the colours range from the basic lemon through to orange, with just one cultivar a deep orange-red called Mecanopsis cambrica Francis Perry.
This may not be the most spectacular of poppies but it has a charm all of its own. One endearing quality is it's willingness to repeat flower throughout the summer, if cut back after flowering.
The yellow welsh poppy was adopted as the symbol for the Welsh Nationalist Party: Plaid Cymru in 2006
Discovering The Blue Poppy
All the blue poppies are commonly known as Himalayan Blue Poppies.
In 1885 the first recorded blue poppy was discovered by Père Delavaye, a Jesuit missionary and plant collector Père Delavaye. The poppy was found in northern Yunnan, and named Meconopsis betonicifolia.
In 1913 Frederick M. Bailey, a British Army officer and explorer found a new blue poppy whilst exploring the Tsangpo river gorge in Tibet. This poppy was named Meconopsis baileyi after him.
In1922 a British Himalayan expedition, led by legendary mountaineer George Leigh Mallory, discovered yet another blue poppy during their failed attempt to reach the summit of the then-unconquered Mount Everest. The flowers were introduced to much excitement at the Royal Horticultural Society's spring show of 1926 and named Meconopsis grandis
Meconopsis grandis is the national flower of Bhutan.
These Blue Poppies Grow High In The Cool Mountains Of Tibet
Blue poppies thrive best where it is cool and moist, so in order to grow them successfully it helps to live in the cooler parts of the world such as the British Isles, Scandinavia, British Columbia and the milder parts of Alaska.
There are 40-50 identified species and they mostly grow in high altitude areas of central Nepal, Tibet, north-west Yunnan, western Sichuan, Qinghai and Ganzu where rainfall in plentiful.
Growing Blue Poppies is not easy and understanding this group of plants is a challenge. The Meconopsis Group have a specialized website about Meconopsis species. The site provides a complete review of the whole group of blue poppies, offers detailed cultivation notes and has stunning photos.
Californian Tree Poppy : Romneya Coulteri
The Californian Tree Poppy
This stunning poppy is native to California, USA and Mexico. It's habitat is the hot, dry heath and scrublands known as chaparral.
In more temperate climates it is grown in sheltered places as a tender shrub. Cities can create microclimates, and the old Chelsea Physic Garden in the city of London has a magnificent specimen.
I love this gorgeous shrub poppy; it is the most magnificent sight in full flower. Its flowers are the size of tea plates, dazzlingly white with a golden yellow centre boss and its leaves are large and architectural and a gorgeous silver grey.
Romneya grows to 2 meters in height and can spread up to 2.5 meters with its suckering growth habit. It makes a perfect plant for sheltered borders and Mediterranean style plantings.
Glaucium flavum : Sea Poppy / Yellow Horned Poppy
The Poppy That Grows On The Seashore
Although this poppy is native to Northern Africa, Macaronesia, the Caucasus and the temperate zones in Western Asia, it can be found growing on the sand dunes and sea shores of Northern Europe including England.
Relatively few plants adapt to grow in coastal conditions. In order to survive the salty and harsh, dry environment its bluish-grey, deeply segmented leaves are covered by a thick coating of water retaining wax. The yellow flowers are similar in shape to the red field poppy, but the seed heads are very different, being hugely elongated
It’s important to note here that all parts of this poppy, including the seeds, are extremely poisonous. Ingestion can produce a range of symptoms up to and including respiratory failure resulting in death.
This look at different kinds of poppies would not be complete without mentioning Super Poppies. Sadly there are no photographs available at this time These ground breaking poppies are grown at the small, family nursery, Water Meadow Nursery in Hampshire, England, when the British National Collection of Poppies is held.
This is an excerpt from their catalogue description of Super Poppies:
"The ‘Super Poppies’ are a new inter specific hybrid form of perennial
poppy. They were originally created & bred in the U.S.A. by Mr James
DeWelt from a breeding programme of crossing Papaver atlanticum,
californicum, rupifragrum, somniferum"
And this link takes you to the article and to illustrations of the poppies.
so ends this trip through the poppy fields of the world
“Through the dancing poppies stole
A breeze most softly lulling to my soul.”
From Endymion (book 1) by John Keats