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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Seeking the True Blue Flower

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Blue is one of the rarest of floral colors; only black is more elusive. And that’s probably because of the complex chemistry involved in producing a blue pigment, because bees, butterflies and other pollinators actually find blue quite attractive and easily visit blue flowers. That means that, evolutionarily speaking, blue flowers should be a good choice for blooms and flowers ought to have evolved as readily in that direction as they did towards the pink, white and yellow flowers that are so common.

But it turns out blue is hard to produce. The blue in flowers comes from a pigment that normally gives red or purple hues: anthocyanin (from Greek meaning dark blue). Various forms of it as well as related chemicals give flowers their blue coloration. But most plants with reasonable quantities of this compound produce purple to red flowers instead. Why?

Well, that’s complicated. Suffice it to say that various molecules and metal ions have to be present and also the environment near the pigment cells has to be alkaline. Many plants with true-blue flowers (notably in the families Boraginaceae and Convolvulaceae) have pink buds that turn blue as their environment becomes more alkaline, but most anthocyanin-rich flowers have acid sap and therefore their flowers turn out purple or red. In flowers, blue is a co-pigementation: it needs the right conditions to express itself.

Blue Flowers Are Highly Desirable

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These orchids have been dyed blue. Photo: Tangopaso, Wikimedia Commons

Blue flowers are much appreciated in the florist industry, so much so that dyeing or spraying white flowers blue to make them more saleable is a common practice. Dyes are even injected into living plants to give a blue tint to their flowers. That’s the case of the blue orchids that are so often seen on the market these days. They are actually blue-tinted Phalaenopsis and the next time they bloom, the flowers will be white.

There are scientists all over the world working to introduce genes for blue coloration into popular cut flowers—roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, etc.—with, so far, only mitigated success.

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The Applause rose has “blue genes”, but looks dark lavender to me! Photo: Blue Rose Man, Wikimedia Commons

The efforts to create a blue rose (Rosa) by transferring genes from blue-flowering plants into hybrid tea roses have resulted in a so-called blue rose, Applause, launched by Suntory in 2009 … but in my opinion, it’s not really blue. It’s closer to lavender. Of course, that is an exciting new color for roses, but the true blue rose has yet to be created.

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To me, these “blue carnations” from the Mooncarnation series are violet. Photo: Pagemoral, Wikimedia Commons

The same played out for carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus). Scientists transferred genetic material from blue-flowered plants, plus deleted carnation genes that were hindering the coloration. The resulting “blue” carnations (all those that I know of belong to the series Mooncarnation) are actually different shades of purple and violet. Now, these are new colors for carnations, of course, but they certainly aren’t blue.

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Newly introduced, this “blue chrysanthemum” is not yet commercially available. It’s closer to blue than blue roses and blue carnations, but still, it doesn’t look quite blue to me.  Photo: Naonobu Noda/NARO

Very recently (July 26, 2017), scientists announced the creation of the first blue chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum x morifolium). It was obtained by inserting genes from a bellflower (Campanula medium) and a blue pea (Clitoria ternatea) into a chrysanthemum. Again, these new mums are being touted as true blue, but I still see a lot of lavender in the flowers and would definitely not call them blue.

Note that these manipulations are all examples of genetic engineering. In other words, these plants are GMOs, a term that scares the s___ out of many people. That said, blue roses and blue carnations have been on the cut flower market for a decade now and I have yet to hear any outcry.

True Blue Blossoms

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Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’: now that’s a blue flower! Photo: Russel E, Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, there are true blue flowers, and in fact they evolved all on their own and have been around for millions of years. I don’t think anyone will deny that a ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory (Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’) is blue. Moreover, this cultivar was not developed in a laboratory nor is it even a hybrid. Instead, it’s a selection of the wild I. tricolor, a species with naturally blue flowers.

And that’s just one example among many … well, among “quite a few.” There are probably no more than a few hundred true-blue flowers among the some 400,000 plants on this planet.

How to define “blue”?

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Bluebells (here, Campanula cochleariifolia), are not really blue, but violet. Photo: Jerzy Opiola, Wikimedia Commons

In horticulture, there is a long tradition of claiming any flower even the slightest bit close to blue as being a blue flower. Above all, violet-blue flowers—definitely more violet than blue!—are universally called “blue” and violet is an abundant color in the floral world. I’ve always felt this was a case of wishful thinking: we’d like to have blue blooms, so we accept anything close to blue as being true blue.

This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon, by the way: in all the languages I know (4), purple flowers are regularly called blue. Linnaeus himself, the father of botany, named many violet-colored flowers coerulea, which means blue.

Also, I suspect the definition of blue varies from one individual to another. As I researched this article, I realized that I take a rather narrow view to “true blue”. I tend to apply that term to lighter blues (cyan, azure, sky blue, etc.), while to my eye, shades that could be considered blue (indigo, cobalt, etc.) are violet. I’m not sure everyone would agree!

Obviously, we could take the scientific definition of blue as a benchmark. Blue is caused by light rays ranging from 450 to 500 nanometers … but who has a device capable of measuring that?

True Blue Flowers

Here are some flowers that, in my eyes, are true blue. I’ll admit it’s a subjective choice, but—hey! —I am the one writing this article!

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Allium caeruleum. Photo: col&tasha, Flickr

  1. Allium caeruleum (blue globe onion) – bulb, zone 3
  2. Amsonia spp. (bluestar) – perennial, zone 4 to 6, according to species
  3. Anagallis arvensis (poor man’s weather-glass) – annual

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    Borago officinalis. Photo: Sten Porse, Wikimedia Commons

  4. Borago officinalis (borage) – annual herb
  5. Brunnera macrophylla (Siberian bugloss) – perennial, zone 3
  6. Centaurea cyanea (cornflower, bachelor’s button) – annual
  7. Ceratostigma plumbaginoides (leadwort) – perennial, zone 6
  8. Clitoria ternatea (blue pea) – tropical climber, annual
  9. Commelina communis (dayflower) – annual weed

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    Corydalis flexuosa. Photo: jardinierparesseux.com

  10. Corydalis flexuosa (blue corydalis) – perennial, zone 6
  11. Cynoglossum amabile (Chinese forget-me-not) – annual
  12. Eryngium spp. (sea holly) – perennial, zone 4
  13. Evolvulus x ‘Blue Daze’ (compact morning glory) – annual
  14. Hydrangea macrocarpa (blue hydrangea), blue in acid soils – shrub, zone 6
  15. Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’ (morning glory)—annual climber
  16. Linum perenne (perennial flax)—perennial, zone 3
  17. Linum usitatissimum (common flax) – annual

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    Meconopsis betonicifolia. Photo: Andrew Curtis, Wikimedia Commons

  18. Meconopsis betonicifolia (blue poppy) – biennial or short-lived perennial, zone 3
  19. Mertensia spp. (Virginia bluebells and others) – perennial, zone 4
  20. Myosotis spp. (forget-me-not) – biennial, zone 3
  21. Oxypetalum caeruleum (tweedia) – annual
  22. Plumbago auriculata (blue plumbago) – tropical climber or houseplant

Flowers That Are Often Blue

The following plants come in a wider range of colors, including many violets and purples, but also some true blues. With these variable plants, if you want blue flowers, make sure you pick the right cultivar.

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Delphinium ‘Blue Fountains’: this mix from seed contains blue flowers, but also purple and white blooms. Photo: J.W. Jung Seed Co.

  1. Delphinium spp. (delphinium, larkspur) – perennial or annual, zone 2
  2. Gentiana spp. (gentian) – perennial, zone 2 to 6, according to species
  3. Eustoma grandiflorum (lisianthus) – annual
  4. Hyacinthus orientalis (hyacinth) – bulb, zone 4
  5. Iris x germanica (bearded iris, garden iris) – perennial, zone 3
  6. Lobelia erinus (edging lobelia) – annual
  7. Lupinus spp. (lupine) – annual or perennial, zone 3
  8. Muscari spp. (grape hyacinth) – bulb, zone 3
  9. Salvia guaranitica (blue anise sage) – annual in cold climates
  10. Salvia patens (gentian sage) – annual in cold climates
  11. Viola x wittrockiana (pensée) – biennial or short-lived perennial, zone 4

So-Called Blue Flowers

What follows is just a short list of plants many gardeners consider to have blue flowers, but that, personally, I find too close to violet to belong in that group. So if you’re planning a blue border, you might want to skip these.

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Ageratum houstonianum ‘Blue Hawaii’: a pretty shade of violet, but not blue. Photo: Swallowtail Garden Seeds

  1. Aconitum spp. (aconite, monkshood) – perennial, zone 3
  2. Agapanthus spp. (lily of the Nile) – summer bulb or perennial, zone 7
  3. Ageratum houstonianum (flossflower) – annual
  4. Anchusa spp. (bugloss) – biennial or perennial, zone 3
  5. Aquilegia coerulea (blue columbine) – perennial, zone 3
  6. Browallia spp. (browallia, amethyst flower) – annual
  7. Campanula spp. (bellflower) – biennial or perennial, zone 3
  8. Echinops spp. (globe thistle) – perennial, zone 3
  9. Geranium spp. (hardy geranium) – perennial, zones 2 to 9, by species
  10. Hyacinthoides non-scripta (bluebells) – bulb, zone 4
  11. Iris sibirica (Siberian iris) – perennial, zone 3
  12. Iris versicolor (larger blue flag iris) – perennial, zone 3
  13. Lobelia siphilitica (great blue lobelia) – perennial, zone 3
  14. Scilla siberica (Siberian squill) – bulb, zone 320170829A