Starlets of the garden

Showy oriental poppies are brief, but tolerant and easy to grow.

Pat Wellenbach/AP/FILE
Poppies bloom in Alna, Maine.

Every spring I debate with myself about Oriental poppies, Papaver orientale. If an image doesn't come immediately to mind, think big and gorgeous, the kind of bloom that Georgia O'Keeffe liked to paint.

My reservation about Oriental poppies isn't about their visual showiness but with their liabilities as garden plants: Their bloom lasts only a moment, they are easily damaged by wind and rain, they have trouble standing up by themselves, and their post-flower foliage is weedy and lasts far too long.

Like movie actresses who rely on their looks, their moment in the sun is brief.

My small poppy collection includes a traditional orange, which I like least; several reds, including the old-timer "Beauty of Livermere"; the salmon-pink "Cedric Morris"; and "Patty's Plum," a dusky purple cultivar (a variety produced by selective breeding) that began as a volunteer in an English compost pile – a good argument for not sending your green waste to the local landfill.

There are still more Oriental poppies, including whites and cultivars with doubled petals, ruffled petals, and petals with edges that are fringed or serrated.

Whatever the petal color, the flower's center will be blotched with black or another dark color and contain a large, decorative seed capsule surrounded by dark stamens.

Maybe I haven't dug out my poppies because they are so easy to grow, are not particular about soil and site, have no serious bug or disease problems, are drought-tolerant, and cope with both heat and cold (USDA Zones 3 through 9). They do best in full sun but remarkably well in partial shade.

Despite their reputation for not liking to have their roots disturbed – transplanting large plants can be iffy – Oriental poppies are easy to propagate from root cuttings. Also, all of today's Oriental poppies are hybrids, which means their seeds won't come true, but it is easy to grow plants from seed if you don't expect them to look like the parent plant.

O'Keeffe must have set up her easel in the garden, because Oriental poppies aren't ideal flowers for the vase. Open blooms begin to fall apart almost the minute you cut them, but if you're keen for a bouquet, pick flowers with buds that are ready to open and sear the end of the stems – hold them in an open flame for a few seconds – before you place them in water.

After all, who can resist a gorgeous face, in the garden or on the screen?

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.