10 January 2010

By Poppy-ular Demand: Blue poppies, the garden diva

My love affair with the elusive, challenging, maddening but oh-so-exqusite blue poppy began more than a decade ago, when I first started seeing them regularly in gardening magazines. One magazine featured the graceful flowers on the cover, and I think I still have it here, buried somewhere in the piles of magazines that live in my storage office. How could anything be that blue and be a flower? I just knew that one day, I’d have to try my hand at growing them.

Well, as many of you know…I do okay with them. Not great (no waving vistas of dozens of meconopsis here) but well enough that they're sort of a signature plant for me. There have been challenges, that’s for sure, as I wrote in the incredibly sad and all too true tale of woe to do with ducks and blue poppies. But this post isn’t so much about my own experiences with them as an information piece for others. I’m not an expert. The genus IS quite complex. But I’ll share what I’ve learned, and hope it helps others determine whether or not they can grow these marvelous, seductive bloomers. And I'll always cheer on and celebrate others who succeed with these bratty bloomers.

The genus Meconopsis is in the family Papaveraceae, but the plants we refer to as blue poppies aren’t actually poppies at all (poppies being Papaver genus, where there are no true-blue flowers). Now, we can go into all the botany, but I sense eyes glazing over, so instead I’ll refer you to the Meconopsis website where you can learn more about the differences between Papaver, Meconopsis and other members of the same family.

Not all Meconopsis are blue, either. M. cambrica, which I’ve never grown, is yellow-flowered, occasionally orange; several have lavender to purple blossoms, others come in red, rose, yellow or white, and even the blues come in a variety of hues. I’ve had M. b. ‘Hensol Violet’ before, but it apparently didn’t like growing for us because it didn’t return. Or perhaps it was monocarpic. More botany coming along now, so deep breath, and look at this lovely flower before we proceed. Ready?

Monocarpic plants flower only once in their lifetime, though they may live for a few years before they get around to flowering (and dying). Some have evergreen foliage, others are deciduous, and most of the monocarpic species aren’t usually seen for sale, at least around here. That being said…the perennial forms do sometimes behave in a monocarpic way. I sometimes think that these plants are related to cats, and do things just because they can. With the perennial forms, some set seed, and others are sterile. And sometimes if pollination is off, even the fertile types don’t set good seed. Whew! Are we confused yet? Let’s look at another flower….

Don’t worry, there’s not a test…but are you seeing why the genus is at once loved at the same time as many gardeners are intimidated by them? It’s a confusing group of plants, but we love them in spite of their moodiness. Just as we love certain naughty, moody felines.

Experts estimate the number of species of Meconopsis as between 40 and 50, but most of what we find in nurseries are interspecies hybrids. And we all know how much information many labels give, and how plants can get mislabeled. Often M. betonicifolia is labeled as M. grandis, maybe because it’s easier to spell and say ‘grandis.’ For the most part, the species and named hybrids we DO see in these parts are:
M. betonicifolia
M. grandis
M. nepaulensis
(monocarpic, with red or yellow flowers rather than blue)
M. X sheldonii
M. ‘Lingholm’
M. simplicifolia
M. ‘Hensol Violet’

The reason that Meconopsis do reasonably well for me here is that foggy, wet, cool, (although sometimes annoyingly windy) climate of ours suits them well. They don’t like heat, either when they’re germinating or when they’re growing. Ours are situated in the shade bed near, believe it or not, a line of spruce trees. They don’t get much sun, and they’re in a spot that’s a bit higher than much of the bed, because while they’lll take cold, they resent having their crowns get too wet. Meconopsis has a reputation for being a heavy feeder, and each spring the area where ours are gets a good dose of seaweed fertilizer, some composted manure, and some mushroom compost from an organic producer. In late fall, I throw a few evergreen boughs over them, or some hay, to catch and hold the snow and also to prevent the freeze-thaw cycles.

I haven’t grown any from seed for a few years, ever since the great duck fiasco. Although I grew mine indoors (in our not too hot living room), apparently the best way to grow them is to wintersow them. The best success comes with fresh seed, so hopefully if seed has been foil packaged and stored properly, it will be viable. But with these little monsters, you can seed 500 cells, get maybe 200 seedlings…and have 25 or so survive. They are just crotchety! One valuable tip is to grow the young seedlings on in a coldframe for a year rather than plant them out when they’re tiny, flimsy things.

We currently have four or five plants, most with multiple sections to their crowns. They come and go; sometimes one or two will just arbitrarily up and die, usually over winter, probably because of just one too many freeze-thaw or soggy sessions. I don’t keep track of losses, but I do usually tuck another plant in each year—if I can find ‘Hensol Violet’ again this year, I’ll try it again.

The problem is, some nurseries have almost as much challenge with keeping the plants looking good as some gardeners do. The best plants I’ve seen were at Bayport, (because Dick Steele could grow anything anywhere, including the Antarctic or a desert) and at another nursery on the south shore that had a nice shady lath house for its shade-loving plants. We’re a long way from having the waves of blue flowers that you see in some places, such as in Les Jardins de Metis in Reford, Quebec…but we’re a work in progress.

If your climate is hot and muggy, or hot and dry…you’re probably out of luck with these dizzyingly lovely but cantankerous plants. But if there’s a nursery nearby selling them, and they’re not too expensive, and you can give them a cool, shady site with ample moisture and organic matter…well, what the heck, give it a try. They can surprise you…and the efforts are definitely worth it!

written by Jodi (Bloomingwriter)


  1. Hot and muggy in Nashville so I will love these beauties from afar~~Jodi, they are wonderful and the blue petals with those gorgeous golden pollen laden stamens are a perfect. gail

  2. I so enjoyed this beautiful and illuminating post Jodi! Besides being a talented writer you are a gifted gardener. I have not had success yet with these lovely blue Meconopsis. I am inspired thanks to you, and will bookmark this post, and return when I set out to try again. Your photographs are gorgeous! What a delightful hopeful post for this cold winters day.

  3. Poppies! Poppies, I want blue poppies, poppies will make me sweet, now I'm sweeet. ;~)

  4. Jodi:
    I love you too. Period! Forget the Jack Daniels, I fear I would fumble-stumble around your property like a drunk trying to get off the freakin merry-go-round! You can call me Dr. Parnassus, since I've sold my soul to the devil and have five Meconopsis - 4 M. x 'Sheldonii' and one M. betonicifolia headed my way this Spring....... please let them not be another case of WTFWYD! Please! Please! Now I am headed back to stare and drool over your beauts for another hour or so!

  5. i missed having poppies and have always wanted the blues in my garden back in sonoma....but now i'm stuck with living in hawaii where i have fushia, oranges, purples and other wild combinations instead...its nice to have special plants like meconopsis just for your regions!


  6. I found you from a comment on Garden With Me blog.

    The Texas Hill Country is blast-furnace in summer and I've had a time just getting 'regular' poppies to grow so I'll have to enjoy yours.

    As a side question, did I count pictures of SIX kitties here? How do you manage two kitties per lap? We have a hard time with three cats/two people...

  7. Jodi, thank you for such a great post. I have wondered about those amazing poppies. I truly enjoyed learning about them - Gloria

  8. Wonderful info, thanks so much for reposting. I am in a hot & dry location, but may have a good spot with morning sun and good moisture/protection. I will order 3 Sheldonii & 3 Grandis and see how it goes. I won't be crushed if they don't come back (ok, I will a little), as long as they flower the first season I may resign myself to treating them as expensive annuals. I can't wait to have them here. :) Rebecca

  9. I wish! But I'll just have to revisit your photos.

  10. Hot and muggy, that's us -- except when it's freezing cold. Those close-up pics show the petals to have that silk crepe appearance of papavers that make them so appealing.

    I'll admire those of you who can grow them and be content with my fiesta colors poppies of the real papaver family. Their little leaves are blue from cold but they're hanging on. Oh, wait -- their little leaves are always blue, just no blue blossoms.

    I loved this presentation. It took my mind off the cold for 119 seconds. I think I'll review it over and over.

  11. roasting hot and muggy summers here, so I will get my vicarious enjoyment from you. These are beautiful! I've always loved poppies, and I have actually planted a few, which died before flowering. I love your pictures, and the information is excellent (though discouraging to me). Have a great week!

  12. I won't try poppies here in the deep south but shall enjoy them tremendously on your blog! Love them, love them, love them!

  13. I still have the three survivors from seed I sowed the year before last and I have everything crossed that this winter will not kill them.

    Perhaps they will actually flower this year?

    Another great post Jodi, thank you.

  14. Very beautiful blue flowers! I wish they can also grow here but they don't. Beautiful compositions also. thank you.

  15. The last chapter on these at Our Little Acre has yet to be written, jodi. I have tried these: M. betonicifolia, M. X sheldonii, and
    M. ‘Lingholm.’ Nary a success yet. But a friend gave me some seeds last fall that he purchased at Butchart Gardens in Vancouver. I'm going to winter sow those and hope for the best!

  16. Jodi, I want these desperately. I first learned about them when writing about an Alaska garden for BH&G...which is also when I realized I'll never have them here in Southern CA. But if I could, just think, I'd grow searing orange poppies and sky blue poppies side by side...oh, my!

  17. What an informative post. I do think it takes not only a skilled gardener such as yourself, but one possessed of determination and patience. The blue poppy is a wonder and you are a wonder to have given us so much info and encouragement.

  18. I think I love them most because they *are* blue -- there are so few truly blue flowers in Nature, and these are dazzlingly so! Beauties. :)

  19. Thanks for this post, Jodi. The photos are awesome, and remind me of why I want to take another stab at starting some seeds - after a dismal attempt the last time.

    I've met another Yukon gardener who says she's had them in her garden for years, so I'll try to get some tips from her. The biggest challenge, I expect, will be the freeze/thaw cycles as you mention.

    Thanks again for a wonderfully informative and well-written post.

  20. That blue is just incredible but I will have to make due with blue delphiniums as these plants are just too finicky for this gardener to even attempt. I will continue to enjoy yours and celebrate your success.

  21. They are so pretty, that blue is just amazing. I think I've seen them once at a nursery near here. My friend bought them and I don't think they did very well. I would've thought they were a full sun plant, but good to know they prefer more shade. If I see the around this year I will try them, better yet if I see seeds I will try winter sowing them. Very informative post!

  22. I have tried before and failed but damn it...I going to try again and again, they are so beautiful. Thank you for a lovely and informative post Jodi.

  23. I love the way you let us down gently, Jodi, never saying it is impossible and don't even try. We appreciate that. That you can grow them is a blessing since you share photos so willingly. We know we can come to you for a fix of blue, poppy. :-)

  24. Great post, I just got a small package of shedonii from a friend and am trying to figure out what to do with them. I really want blue poppies in my garden (who doesn't?).

  25. The photos are so beautiful - thanks for posting.

    Is it possible for the number of petals to vary within a species? I took some photos at a nearby conservatory and later noticed that while most of the meconopsis (lingholm) flowers had 4 petals, some seemed to have 6, and some even five. Maybe the petals were torn or my camera shots are deceiving?


Thank you for visiting and for taking the time to comment! It might take me a bit, but I will return the compliment whenever possible.
Spammers--need not apply. Because I delete your comments and they will never make it here. Kthxbai!

Search Bloomingwriter

Custom Search