David C. Zlesak, University of Minnesota Extension Educator
Glowing, vibrant blooms bring oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) to center stage this time of year. The large (4-6”) flowers have crêpe paper-like petals and are held high above the foliage on strong, yet wiry stems. In a gentle breeze they almost appear to dance. The finely cut foliage makes a great backdrop to the flowers and the abundant, almost downy hairs that cover the foliage and stems set Oriental poppies apart from most other commonly grown poppies.
Native to central Asia where summers are warm and dry, these magnificent poppies have developed a unique adaptation method. When moisture is relatively abundant in spring, leaves emerge and plants quickly come into flower. As temperatures rise and moisture becomes less abundant, the foliage begins to die back and plants go dormant. As temperatures begin to cool in the fall and rains return, new foliage again emerges.
Photo 1: This double-flowered Oriental poppy is a prolific bloomer. David Zlesak
Although Oriental poppies are very cold hardy and survive routinely even into zone 3, care must be given to plant them in well drained soil to ensure survival. Excessive moisture, especially during summer months, can lead to their demise. In addition to having well drained soil, full sun down to half a day of sun is also important for success. In the right location they are very low maintenance. In fact, we can often find huge stands of Oriental poppies doing great on old farmsteads.
Photo 2: Oriental poppies have done well in this location and have multiplied. David Zlesak
The most common flower color for Oriental poppies is orange-scarlet. Extensive breeding and selection in the late 1800’s has led to Oriental poppies that come in white, pink, peach, maroon, or purple. Many Oriental poppies have a black blotch at their base. In some forms this blotch is particularly large and ornamental. Variation is also found across different varieties for petal number as well as petal margin. There are single forms and double forms and forms that have smooth petal margins and some with frilly petal margins. There are both seed propagated varieties on the market and vegetatively propagated cultivars.
Oriental poppies do not transplant well. After suffering root injury from being transplanted, they typically have stunted growth and do not bloom well during the next flowering cycle. Typically after a couple seasons they fully recover. Elite clones are typically vegetatively propagated using root cuttings. In our climate, early spring tends to be the best time to take root cuttings. This can easily be done when moving an existing plant. Often roots left behind will sprout and lead to new plants. Sections of thicker, fleshier roots from a couple to few inches in length work well. Plant the end of the root that was closest to the crown of the parent plant closer to the soil surface, or if you lost track, plant roots horizontally just below the soil surface. When shoots form at the cut end that was closer to the crown of the plant they need to be relatively close to the soil surface to be able to emerge. It takes four to eight weeks typically for new shoots to form and emerge from a root cutting.
It can be challenging to find potted Oriental poppies in the garden center because they do not respond well to typically humid and moist greenhouse production conditions. Fortunately, they can readily be purchased as dormant plants from mail order companies or started from seed.