Casual Gardener: Poppy Love

Poppies can be problematic but their beauty is beguiling...

EVERY year the poppy debate rages - is Papaver orientale a spectacularly beautiful herbaceous perennial or is it an overrated thug with flowers that barely last a week?

More on this divisive issue later but first some botanical qualification. The poppy that was adopted as a symbol of remembrance in the aftermath of the First World War is the field poppy (Papaver rhoeas). This is an annual wild flower, the seeds of which can remain viable for a thousand years, waiting patiently for something to disturb the ground in which it lies, prompting germination.

Historically, tillage or large herds of herbivores would have fulfilled this role. However, after four years of slaughter in the muddy trenches, when the young men who had managed to survive the gas, heavy artillery and bayonet charges retreated and returned home, a poignant display emerged.

The summer of 1919 saw a profusion of poppies on the now silent battlefields, huge swathes of blood red flowers that came to represent the hideousness and futility of war. Due to its association with the British military, the poppy as a symbol of remembrance has met with justifiable resistance among many here in the north, while in more recent years its enforcement by English football clubs and broadcasters has subverted the symbolism so much that it has become pointless.

It's still a beautiful flower though, but one that tends to grow on its own terms, meaning it's little suited to conventional gardens and more at home in a meadow.

Similarly beguiling and equally unpredictable is the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), another annual with crepe paper-like petals of light purple.

But if you desire the poppy's beauty year after year but don't want the hassle of sowing seeds annually, then look no further than the perennial oriental varieties.

For much of the year the oriental poppy's hairy, thistle-like foliage is reasonably discreet. As summer arrives, however, the flower buds form like alien's eggs which are sent skywards on gravity-defying stalks up to meter long.

In June these buds explode into papery blooms of vermilion, pink, lilac, scarlet, and many more colours, depending on variety. The flowers may be ephemeral, lasting less than a day if it's wet and windy, but their beauty is impossible to deny.

But let's not fret over a single flower, because the vigorous oriental poppy will produce many more over the coming weeks, especially if you dead head. Come July, the whole plant collapses on itself with exhaustion, an undignified curtain call and one of a number of drawbacks with Papavar orientale - the others being its tendency to fall over if conditions aren't perfect and the plant's persistence in places it's unwelcome.

Staking in May is the best solution to counter flopping, while containment and vigilance will help prevent this majestic plant from becoming a nuisance. There's also the added bonus that if you cut the plant back hard immediately after flowering - which helps tidy it up - then it will flower again to a lesser extent in early autumn.

Popular varieties include the deep scarlet 'Beauty of Livermore' or P. orientale 'Goliath Group', as they now refer to it. Other recommended cultivars include the pale pink 'Karine', the self-explanatory 'Black & White' and the delicious purple of 'Patty's Plum'.

'Turkenlouis' is a newer bright red variety, while the delicious sounding 'Raspberry Ruffles' has a double row of frilly edged petals that fade as they age.

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