My Love-Hate Relationship With the Blue Poppy

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How can anyone resist a plant that looks this good in a photo? Photo: http://www.premierseedsdirect.com

Yes, the famous blue poppy! What gardener doesn’t dream of adding to their resumé, under Accomplishments, “Successfully bloomed a blue poppy.” It’s not just because it’s beautiful and comes in such a remarkable shade (although blue is sooo rare in flowers), but because it’s reputed to be such a challenge to grow. 

My own experiences with this plant go back to my childhood. I was about 10 years old and had seen a picture of the blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia) in my dad’s seed catalog. It looked so exotic and striking that I knew right away that I was going to try to grow it. But my dad refused to buy seeds for me, claiming that the blue poppy was not a good choice for little boys … which, of course, made trying to grow it all that much more irresistible.

The seeds I ordered came in a pack much like this. Photo: http://www.amazon.com

Three years later, having managed to grow begonias from seed, my idea of the utmost gardening challenge at the time, I was sure I was ready for anything the gardening world could throw at me. And I now had an additional advantage: freedom to purchase! Yes, I now had a budget (thanks to money made mowing neighbors’ lawns … with my dad’s lawn mower) and didn’t need my dad to order seeds for me. I could order them myself, thank you very much. 

So, I did …and it was a disaster. Not a single seed sprouted! The following spring, I tried again, with no greater luck. Is it possible that fathers somehow do know best? 

At any rate, I put aside making “growing a blue poppy” my life’s main ambition, at least for the moment, and concentrated on being a teenager. 

A Dream Comes True

In fact, it was almost 30 years later before I dared try again.

By then, I was a serious gardener and, in fact, was making a living as a freelance garden writer (as I do today). I’d grown with success all sorts of challenging plants and lived to tell the tale. Somehow, though, I felt I needed another horticultural feather in my cap and looked back lustily at my old nemesis, the blue poppy. 

Of course, I could have bought a plant and saved about 15 steps and a lot of time, but that would be taking the easy way out. I decided to go all the way and start my own blue poppies from seed, then grow them to full bloom. So, I yet again ordered a pack of blue poppy seeds.

There must have been 200 seeds in the pack, as fine as dust. And the smallest seeds are always the most challenging. However, now I had research behind me. I had read and absorbed the advice of the best experts in the field …taken from books, of course (the Internet did not yet exist). How could I fail?

My main challenge was a borderline climate. Blue poppies come from the Himalayas and like cool, alpine conditions. My climate was certainly cool enough from fall through spring and they’re very cold hardy (zone 3), so my cold winters weren’t a problem, but summers where I live can be hot. Well, fairly hot. Not Miami hot, but still, sometimes up into the 80s (26˚C and above) and extremely humid. By providing reasonable shade, careful watering (moist soils are cooler than dry ones) and a decent mulch, though, it ought to be doable. 

I had learned my failed first attempts came from starting the seeds too warm. Yes, 99% of seeds germinate under warm conditions; blue poppies are part of the 1% that like things cool. Some authors (but not all) also suggested a cold treatment after sowing to break seed dormancy. So, I did both. I sowed the seeds in my cold frame in the fall and left them there, their pots in sealed plastic bags, until spring.

Blue poppy seedlings are small and fragile. Photo: gardenofeaden.blogspot.com

Eureka! By May, I had 10 tiny blue poppy seedlings. 

Now, to be honest, that wasn’t much of a germination rate (10 seeds out of 200 sown; about 5%), but I only needed a few plants to meet my goal.

Of course, with summer coming, the cold frame soon started heating up and I had to move the seedlings elsewhere, outdoors under the shade of some spruces, but even there, it wasn’t easy supplying cool temperatures. By summer, I could tell they weren’t happy. They essentially stopped growing. And I started losing them. Maybe the soil got a bit too dry or it got to be a bit too hot. At any rate, the now three surviving plantlets still looked too small and fragile to plant out and by fall, I decided to put them back in the now cooler cold frame for winter. 

The plants were now strong enough to plant out. Photo: http://www.growsonyou.com

That seemed to perk them up and the next spring, they began to grow more lustily. By summer, they were about the size they should have been the first year. So, the second fall, I dared planting them out, in shade. In moist, acid soil. With plenty of mulch.

When spring came around again, there was only one plant left … but at least it was producing flower buds!

Experts advise you to not let the plant bloom its first year, so clip those buds off. Photo: http://www.gardentags.com

The expert advice, however, was to not let a blue poppy produce flowers in its first cycle; otherwise it was likely to act like a biennial and die after flowering. Cut back the buds, they said, and wait for another year. That can perennialize it.

I felt almost sick at heart cutting back the buds of my sole plant after so many years of effort, but I did it. And waited patiently.

The Flower Thief

The following spring, my unique blue poppy was still alive and again bearing flower buds. In fact, more than the previous year. It looked healthy and robust. I proudly watched the buds grow and swell. I was finally going to bloom my first blue poppy!

I was this close to seeing the first flowers. Photo: flowers.cveti-sadi.ru

I had to leave for a few days to give a series of lectures, but wasn’t too concerned. Blue poppies bloom over a period of weeks. Still, I was anxious to get back, because I knew that the flowers would be open and I was so looking forward to seeing them. Upon my arrival, I, of course, left my suitcase in the car and ran up the garden steps to see them!

They were gone! There were just stubs where the stems had been. 

I immediately felt a murderous rage come over me. That groundhog would pay for this! I mean, what else could it have been? But, looking more carefully, I saw the stems hadn’t been nibbled back, but carefully snipped. Someone—a human—had cut them!

I’m not going to tell you who I suspected, because she would kill me, but I quickly confronted the most likely culprit. 

“What happened to the poppies?” I shouted.

“What poppies?”asked the suspect, honestly puzzled.

“The blue poppies!”

“Ah, the blue flowers! What a disappointment,” she lamented. “I cut them to make a bouquet for the office, but they didn’t even last a day!”

The offender was eventually forgiven and warned never to cut any blue flowers. Ever.

Finally, Flowers!

If the flowers were gone, the plant was still alive and thriving. So, another year went by. 

What a sense of accomplishment when the plant finally blooms! Photo: http://www.holywelllaneplants.co.uk

The following spring, of course, the buds were watched like a hawk. And this time, they did bloom. The flowers were beautiful, the same stunning, incredible blue as in the catalogs. And the whole show, from the first bloom to the last, lasted over a month. Friends and neighbors were invited over, strangers dragged from the street to gawk. I even brought a bus tour I was guiding over for a look. I was so proud!

But that was the beginning of the end. Although I deadheaded the plant to keep it from going to seed, by next summer, it was just a patch of dead leaves. It had decided its biennial nature was not to be thwarted and it simply gave up the ghost. 

Well, so much the better! I was honestly sick of blue poppies. I never want to grow such a capricious plant again! I already have enough challenges in my daily life. I want easy plants and easy gardening. I’ll leave the damn blue poppy to others.

The Moral of the Story: Cheat

If ever you feel the need to grow this diabolical plant, here’s my suggestion: buy yourself a blue poppy plant in bud, plant it in your flower bed, do not remove its buds and, when the flowers open, take a selfie, with your smiling, proud face at their side …then post the picture everywhere on the Internet: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. That way, everyone will know that you have reached the pinnacle of success in the gardening world and you won’t need to go through 35 years of frustration to get there. 

Then just let the little monster die.

And don’t worry: I won’t tell anyone!

Moral of The Moral

Yes, the blue poppy is gorgeous, but life is too short to bother with such a temperamental plant!

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6 thoughts on “My Love-Hate Relationship With the Blue Poppy

  1. These are exquisite, but I expect I will only admire from afar as I am not disciplined enough to complete the steps you describe to duplicate your experience.

  2. John Wilson

    Larry, I suspect that all the trouble, heartache, and angst this Blue Poppy episode caused you as a young man, was the genesis for your “laidback” gardening method!

  3. OH! . . . . I would like SOOOOOOO freak out! I have had gladiolus and a few other flowers stolen from my front yard, but never anything that I put a log of work into. I would be SOOOOO furious!

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