13 January 2009
A Passion for a Plethora of Poppies, Part 1: Getting to Know You
There’s a wonderful acronym that I learned recently, which describes what happens to people when certain topics are brought up: MEGO, or My Eyes Glaze Over. It suggestions disinterest, boredom, even confusion. Hopefully this post about the pleasures of poppies won’t cause anyone’s eyes to glaze over. I think the only real danger of that is in describing them botanically, but just bear with me for a few minutes and we’ll be in to the heart of the matter.
Poppies belong to the family Papaveraceae, and there are a number of genera that come under the common name poppy. (We’ll get to species in a moment). The most common (at least in my neck of the woods) poppies and poppy relatives come from Meconopsis (the bratty blue), Papaver (including annual, biennial and perennial poppies) Eschscholzia (California poppies, which can claim the most difficult genus to spell I know of). And depending on what taxonomist you talk to, other relatives sometimes included in the family and sometimes in their own family are the bleeding hearts (Dicentra) and fumitories (Corydalis, another favourite plant). Now, THAT discussion (about whether they’re a separate family, a sub family, or whatever) would cause MY eyes to glaze over.
Okay, just a little bit more. There are over 120 species in the genus Papaver, and assorted species in the other genera too. (I don’t have stats on exactly how many right at hand). For our purposes today, we’re going to talk about Papaver species and a little about Meconopsis. The particular species that I grow are:
P. alpinum. This is the dwarf or alpine poppy, found growing in the alps as its name suggests. It’s quite similar to P. nudicaule but its foliage is much smaller, making it a particularly pretty offering in rock gardens.
P. commutatum. Sometimes lumped in with the corn poppies, immortalized by John McCrae with his WW1 poem In Flanders Fields, the Lady Bird poppy does resemble a ladybird beetle with striking red and black colouration.
P. nudicaule. The Icelandic poppy, which along with its relative is among the first perennials to flower in my garden. (Hepatica, yellow corydalis and some pulmonaria beat it out.) But the wonderful thing about this species is that it keeps flowering until it exhausts itself or until fall finally shuts it down. I deadhead mine and they just keep flowering.
P. orientale The truly perennial poppies, with their hairy, thistle-like leaves and their flamenco-dancer flowers. I adore them even though they perform for a relatively short time in our garden. Sometimes, rarely, they’ll put on a late-summer rebloom with a flower or two. My absolute favourites are the delicious Raspberry Queen, which I have found more reliable than Patty’s Plum, and the various colours of Pizzicato poppies in the back garden; orange, salmon, hot pink. Well, and all the rest of them.
P. rhoeas. The beautiful corn or field poppies, There are numerous varieties under the corn poppy banner, including the Shirley and Angel Wing varieties which come in stunning shades of mauve, pink, rose, reds, creams and variations.
P. somniferum. Oh, this is a tangled web of confusion. This is the opium poppy, also variously known as breadseed, lettuce, and peony-flowered poppy. Yup, the same flowering plant that produces opium produces the seeds we like in our muffins and on our bagels. It’s cloaked in assorted DEA regulations in the US, but is routinely offered for sale by seed companies, some of which skirt the issue by calling it by one of its other common names. Here in Canada, I don’t believe there are any regulations about it. WHATEVER. I’ve been growing it for years because it’s beautiful. I don’t collect the seeds to eat or figure out how to extract opium; I buy my baking poppy seeds from a health food store and throw my own seeds to the winds or share them with friends. Others can debate the scary-bananas dangers of these. I figure there are more serious things to worry about in the world. To get around this issue, some growers and sellers refer to this as Papaver paeoniflorum, while once again, taxonomists debate whether that’s a subgroup or just a synonym.
Confused or clear? Well, before all our eyes glaze over, that’s enough for this post. Next time, we’ll talk about growing these perfect pleasers.