On a June morning in my garden, you can hear the honeybees working the newly opened poppies from several paces away. Bees love the pollen of several poppy species, and scientists have found that poppy pollen is remarkably clean, containing few fungi or mycotoxins . In many parts of Europe, the solitary poppy mason bee (Hoplitis papaveris) lines its underground nest with colourful poppy petals.
For the gardener, it is convenient that poppies reseed themselves when encouraged, so you can have a permanent population of hardy annual corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) or bread seed poppies (P. somniferum) by learning to recognise the seedlings, and simply allowing them to grow. There are perennial poppy species as well, but in my experience the hardy annuals are the best poppies to work with in the vegetable garden. The upright plants make good use of space, and because hardy annual poppies finish blooming in early summer, there is time left in the growing season to use the space to grow something else.
Growing Poppies as Winter Annuals
The first poppies I ever grew were corn poppies, also known as field poppies or Shirley poppies. The bold red version is most common, and red corn poppies are a symbol of love in parts of the Middle East. However, in the late 1880’s, a vicar in London’s Shirley area discovered a corn poppy with white-edged petals growing in his garden, and his amateur breeding work created strains in pastel shades of pink and white. To this day, pastel corn poppies are called Shirley poppies.
When grown in good soil, corn poppies can produce 800,000 seeds per plant, which rivals the seed production of many weeds. However, some of the tiny seeds will stay dormant for months or years and others will be eaten by critters, so only a few of the seeds that hit the ground will eventually germinate and grow. To establish a new colony, scatter seeds generously atop prepared soil from fall to early spring, and watch for hairy little rosettes of long, deeply cut leaves in early spring. These are your poppy seedlings, which may attract the interest of rabbits and require protection with a wire cage until the soil warms and the plants start growing rapidly.
My current garden came with an established population of pink bread seed poppies, which also can be used to make opium should one feel sufficiently desperate. It is legal to grow these poppies for their bee-pleasing flowers and edible seeds, which are widely used in baking. Some strains are so attractive to honeybees that they can be used as honeybee attractants, but you will need to observe the behaviour of local bees to pick winners. I have both pink and red strains of bread seed poppies in my garden, and the local bees like the pink ones best.
Bread seed poppy seedlings are easily identified by their smooth, blue-green leaves, which makes them easy to distinguish from weeds. And, while the seedlings are tremendously cold-hardy, the plants will bloom earlier and better if they are covered with cloches or loose mulch during severe cold spells. I have also accidentally grown them under a row cover tunnel through winter, and they loved it.
Extending the Poppy Season
In some years the first poppies bloom in weather so cool that honeybees can barely fly, but still they appear in mid-morning, ready to roll in the newly opened flowers when the pollen is fresh. This is thrilling, so I like to keep poppies blooming well into summer, which is most easily done by lifting and moving seedlings in early spring. They hate being transplanted, even when soil is kept packed around the roots, and it takes the plants so long to recover that the effect is a prolonged season of poppies.
This is great for me and the bees, because I like using poppies as short-lived cut flowers. When cut just as the buds are ready to open, you get a day or two of dramatic, crepe-paper blossoms, and then the petals fall to reveal poppies’ lantern-shaped seed pods. No wonder Van Gogh and Monet loved painting poppies.