Oriental Poppy

Learn a few tips to help you grow the exotic tissue paper blooms of Oriental poppy.

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Papaver orientale  (11) Bloom

Papaver orientale (11) Bloom

Papaver orientale (11)

Give in to the seduction of Oriental poppies. The large, cup-shaped blossoms with their tissue paper petals lure many gardeners who can’t resist the exquisite flowers. The bristly leaves are intriguing, and flower stems resemble fuzzy pipe cleaners. With their beauty and textural artistry, Oriental poppies are tough to resist.

Once established, Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) is a long-lasting plant in the garden. Like peonies, these are perennials that boast multi-generational beauty. In areas of New England and other cold-winter regions where Oriental poppies thrive, it’s not unusual to find clumps that have been in place for 80-plus years. These pretty poppies need a period of cold winter dormancy, so they don’t usually don’t grow well south of Zone 7.

Oriental poppy makes few demands, but if they’re not met, you’ll have zero success. First, Oriental poppies have taproots. This means that once a plant is established, you shouldn’t move it. Plant Oriental poppy where you want it.

These bloomers prefer full sun and soil that’s moist and rich in organic matter—but well-drained. Soil must drain well. Oriental poppy dislikes heat, humidity and heavy wet soil. Mature plants form tufts of foliage roughly 12 to 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide. When flowers appear, they’ll soar 24 to 36 inches above ground level. Pick a spot that gives your Oriental poppies ample elbow room.

For best success getting Oriental poppies started, plant young potted perennials or pre-chilled seed. Or purchase seed and chill it yourself by stashing it in paper bags in the fridge for a few months prior to sowing. Avoid buying bareroot Oriental poppies. These plants just never seem to catch up to pot-grown ones.

In Zones 3 to 5, where winter freezes soil deeply, sow Oriental poppy seed in early spring, as soon as you can get outside and work in the garden. Plant transplants whenever they’re for sale at garden centers. In Zones 6 to 9 where winters are mild, sow seeds in fall. Mix the tiny seed with sand to making sowing easier. Don’t cover seeds—press them into place to ensure good seed to soil contact. Poppy seeds need light to germinate. Thin seedlings 8 to 10 inches apart, snipping unwanted seedlings at soil level. 

Oriental poppies self-seed freely. Hybrids don’t typically come true from seed and revert to the common orange color. Limit the spread by removing spent flowers before they set seed.

Grow Oriental poppies as part of a cutting garden. To use the blooms in arrangements, seal the end of cut poppy stems by passing them through a flame or dipping into boiling water before placing in a vase. Look for flowers in shades of red, white, pink, orange, purple and near-black.

After flowering, the leaves of Oriental poppies disappear, leaving a hole in the garden. Plan for this empty spot by planting Japanese anemone, aster, false sunflower, baby’s breath or boltonia nearby to fill in and carry the garden through the end of the growing season.

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