Let’s begin by admitting that Oriental poppies are the sexiest hardy perennials in existence. For sheer carnal gorgeousness, no other temperate-climate flower even comes close. Of course, if you’re used to looking at things with the cold, steely eye of reason, Oriental poppies reveal some flaws: they bloom early and all too briefly; the taller kinds are apt to flop; and after blooming, their foliage goes into a prolonged and hideous decline before disappearing altogether. But reason doesn’t enter into it. Those immense, crinkled, silky flowers, with their blood-colored petals and mysterious, coal-black centers, bypass the frontal lobes and aim straight for the groin. To see them is to want them.
At some point, of course, we’ve got to stop slobbering so that we can evaluate the relative merits of the selections currently available and make the best choices for our own gardens. For while there’s no such thing as an ugly Oriental poppy flower, there are wide differences in height and habit among the various cultivars, not to mention color, which ranges from the familiar scarlets and vermilions to orange, pink, salmon, white, and even a rather liverish purple. Where did all this diversity come from?
As it turns out, the Oriental poppies that inhabit our gardens today—which are complex hybrids rather than selections of Papaver orientale—have been around for less than a hundred years. The species that parented the hybrids, however—P. bracteatum, P. pseudo-orientale, and the true wild P. orientale—have a much longer history of cultivation. Of the three (all of which are native to northeastern Turkey, the southern Caucasus, and northwestern Iran), P. orientale has been known the longest in Western gardens, having been sent back to Europe in the first years of the 18th century by the French botanist Joseph de Tournefort. Papaver pseudo-orientale was in cultivation by 1788, when it appeared in William Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, and the introduction of P. bracteatum can be traced back to 1817. They all look pretty much like standard-issue Oriental poppies, with black-blotched red petals and coarse, bristly, divided foliage. Papaver orientale and P. pseudo-orientale have a suckering habit, while P. bracteatum is clump-forming, as well as being taller (to four feet) and more erect.
All was quiet on the poppy front until 1906, when the renowned British nurseryman Amos Perry spotted a salmon-pink-flowered seedling in a bed of red-flowered poppies. Promptly brought to market under the name ‘Mrs. Perry’, it marked the beginning of the expansion of the Oriental poppy’s range of color. (Incidentally, ‘Mrs. Perry’ is still available and can hold its own against the newer pinks.) Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, but Oriental poppies apparently do: in 1913, one of Perry’s customers wrote him to complain that the ‘Mrs. Perry’ he had bought to enhance an all-pink border turned out instead to be a “nasty fat white one.” Profuse apologies and a replacement were issued, the offending white poppy was whisked back to the nursery, and ‘Perry’s White’ was born. This exciting discovery gave impetus to Perry’s breeding program, and the cultivars that resulted from the period between 1906 and 1914 have probably contributed their genes to many of the more recent selections. Today’s Oriental poppies offer not only a broadened color palette, but also a range of petal texture, from smooth to crimped and ruffled (sometimes to the point of seeming double); some selections, such as ‘Türkenlouis’, even look as though their petal edges had been cut with pinking shears. The familiar black blotch at the base of each petal is present on many, but not all of the newer sorts. I think it adds character.
Among the more than 100 cultivars currently offered, several of the older selections stand out as being at the top of their respective categories. Among the red-flowered sorts, none is more regal and imposing than ‘Beauty of Livermere’ (to 4 ft.; often sold as ‘Goliath’ and often, unfortunately, propagated from seed so that it does not stay true to form). This plant is probably close to, if not identical with, the species P. bracteatum, and carries its blood-red flowers well above the foliage on tall, bolt-upright stems. Nearly as venerable is the best of the whites—the unimaginatively but accurately named ‘Black and White’ (28–32 in.) It wins out over other white-flowered poppies by virtue of its dazzling brightness, heightened by jet-black blotches, and compact habit. (‘Perry’s White’, in contrast, has a grayish mauve cast. Sorry, Amos.)
If screaming pinks make you gag, you may change your mind after seeing the reliable old American selection ‘Watermelon’ (28–30 in.). In any other flower, a color this strong would be hard to take, but the delicate texture of the poppies’ petals makes it splendid and gemlike rather than crude. Just the thing for perking up a group of too-tasteful campanulas.
A few years ago, the hot new plant that everyone was dying to get hold of was an English-bred Oriental poppy called ‘Patty’s Plum’ (35 in.). After actually seeing it in bloom, I wasn’t so enthusiastic. A good addition to the Puce Border, maybe, but that’s about it. Moreover, it flops and has to be staked. I relented, slightly, after encountering it in the garden of Bosvigo in Cornwall, where it was paired with a crimson barberry whose leaves were the same murky brownish purple, but just a trifle darker. Not a combination to set the heart singing, but agreeable in a subtle, fine-de-siècle sort of way.
Other notable newcomers include the huge-flowered, unblotched, apricot ‘Beauty Queen’ (36 in.); the heavily crimped, lava-red ‘Glowing Embers’ (44 in.); and the charming ‘John III’, with a profusion of small, brilliant red flowers on a trim, compact (28 in.) plant.
But for me, the real excitement of recent years has been a passel of poppies that originated at the nursery of the Countess von Zeppelin, in the picturesque village of Laufen in southern Germany. I had the good luck to visit the nursery a number of years ago and meet the person responsible for breeding the Countess’s remarkable poppies. He was a shy, modest man named Jsbert Preussler, who had recently retired from active horticultural work; his interest in Oriental poppies, however, was as keen as ever. Over cake and coffee in his tiny stone cottage, he explained the goals of his breeding program: a wide range of clear, vivid colors; floriferousness (some Oriental poppies can be annoyingly stingy with their flowers); compact plants that don’t need staking; and a relatively long bloom season. At the time, the only von Zeppelin poppy I new was ‘Kleine Tänzerin’, a smallish plant with exquisite coral flowers. When I mentioned its name, Herr Preussler’s face darkened. I asked him why he wasn’t happy with it. “Too short a bloom period,” came the reply. “But,” I protested, “the color is very beautiful.” The frown turned into the faintest of smiles: “Yes,” he admitted, “the color is very beautiful.”
Even if ‘Kleine Tänzerin’ could not win Herr Preussler’s whole-hearted endorsement, there are plenty of other first-rate von Zeppelin poppies to choose from: strong-growing ‘Aglaja’ (28 in.), with deep salmon-pink flowers marked with red at the base; the beautifully proportioned, pale salmon ‘Degas’ (28 in.); exquisite ‘Karine’, with small flowers in pure, pale pink; bold ‘Leuchtfeuer’ (28 in.), with sumptuous, black-blotched, salmon-orange flowers; and the early-blooming ‘Suleika’ (28 in.), whose immense red flowers exhibit a fine white line on the edges of the petals and a bluish shimmer on the inner surfaces. Taken as a group—and there are at least a half-dozen others I don’t have the space to describe—they represent one of the great plant-breeding triumphs of the last century.
The good news about Oriental poppies is that, provided you meet their minimal requirements (full sun and well-drained soil), they are the easiest and most imperturbable perennials imaginable. Clumps that my grandfather planted 80 years ago, and which have received almost no care for decades, are still going strong. The bad news is that once their late May–June bloom period is over, the foliage starts to yellow and shrivel (it reappears in fall), and soon you have a big gap to fill. Fortunately, you don’t have to put up with the horrible dying foliage: as soon as it starts to go over, you can cut it back to the ground, and the plant won’t be any the worse for it. The bigger problem is dealing with the resulting hole in the border. An often-recommended solution is to pair your poppies with a late-emerging perennial such as gypsophila that will eventually fill the gap. Gypsophila doesn’t like my acid soil, so I resort to asters, perennial sunflowers, and late-flowering ornamental grasses. Tall, robust annuals like Nicotiana sylvestris work well, too. I also put my poppies at the back of the border rather than the front, so that even a temporary gap won’t be too noticeable.
With plants as vigorous as Oriental poppies, you’d think you could pop them into the ground any old time and not worry about it. But like many of their tribe, Oriental poppies dislike root disturbance, and so, if at all possible, they should be planted in early fall while they are still dormant. If you must plant them in spring, buy container-grown plants and handle the root ball as gingerly as possible.
Although Oriental poppies are easy to raise from seed, the plants thus obtained are unlikely to resemble their parents, and so the usual method of propagation is by root cuttings. If you ever try to get rid of an Oriental poppy, you’ll find that each fragment of root left in the ground will produce a new plant. Moral: think long and hard about where you plant your poppies.
Youth fades, beauty fades, pleasure dissipates; Oriental poppies fade too, and relatively quickly compared to other perennials. But the last time I checked, brevity was the salt that gave beauty and pleasure their savor. If you want to fill your borders with nothing but virtuous, long-blooming, impeccably foliaged plants, go ahead. Me, I want to hang out with the fast crowd.
A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 99, no. 3 (May/June 2002).