Garden Clippings for July 8
There were poppies as far as our eyes could see. We had hiked several miles, camped a few nights under the moon, navigated white capped rivers aboard a bamboo raft, and found our way at the northernmost part of Thailand, where it meets the borders of Laos and Burma. The rolling hills covered in poppies were dotted with groves of bamboo.
That was 25 years ago. Our guide, who was better versed in opium than English, showed us how it was seeded, cultivated and collected.
We learned that opium poppies are grown by impoverished farmers in remote dry, warm mountainous regions. A few months after seeds are planted, flowers appear and soon fall off, exposing an egg shaped seed pod, about an inch in diameter. Growers use a sharp knife to cut vertical slits in the pods, causing a milky substance inside to ooze out. In short order the exposed sap turns into a brown gum which is collected and formed into bricks.
The next step, refining, is more complicated and is mostly carried out in crude home facilities. Fortunately or unfortunately we didn’t see the refining process so didn’t learn the tricks of the trade. But we learned enough to “not try this at home.”
Opium poppy (Papaver Somniferum) is related to the Oriental poppy (Papaver Orientalis) we grow here in our perennial gardens. Ornamental poppies are a delight in home gardens for a few weeks early in summer, but their spectacular show is over in a matter of a few weeks.
Poppies are among the brightest of flowers and position themselves on tallish stems about 2 feet high. The paper thin petals in a variety of colours, are short lived and fall off quickly exposing a seed pod that slowly turns from green to brown. Soon after flowers drop, the foliage itself goes dormant, leaving a haphazard patch of deteriorating leaves. Later in summer new leaves will appear.
Don’t plant poppies where you want a tidy, obedient plant but rather plant them in a mixed perennial border where they can be in their glory early in summer, but then take a back seat to other perennials when the show is over. Good companion plants are Shasta Daisy, Purple Coneflower, Baby’s Breath and Rudbeckia.
The easiest way to grow Poppies is by directly sowing seeds into the spring garden, about a month before the frost free date. Drop seeds into a shallow furrow and cover with a thin layer of soil. Give seeds about 3 to 4 weeks to sprout and thin them to 6 to 12 inch spacing. Poppies don’t need good soil but will appreciate good drainage.
Poppies are difficult to transplant and attempting to divide and share will likely be met with failure. Sowing seeds in fall into 4 inch grower pots will work but be careful when moving them to their eventual location. Poppy plants can be bought from perennial growers, but potted plants will not be showy until the following year. Once you have a few poppies, they will readily self-seed giving you years of pleasure.