Could there be a more graceful flower? With slightly ruffled, tissue-thin petals balanced atop tall, threadlike stems, it is difficult to imagine anything prettier than an Iceland poppy--or colors any brighter.
It's the favorite flower of many a gardener, but just as many others have found it a frustrating flower to grow. Keep in mind that this poppy is a native of arctic meadows and demands cool weather to grow in. This makes it a bit of a gamble in Southern California, where some years are going to be cooler--and kinder to plants--than others, though this year is starting out right. For those who have found Iceland poppies frustrating, here is some advice gleaned from the gardeners at Sherman Botanic Gardens in Corona del Mar, where Island poppies usually put on quite a show.
Iceland poppies must be planted in the fall, and in particular, they should be planted before the end of November. Good timing is all-important. The idea is to plant them after the heat of early autumn, but before the weather turns too cool. Timing is especially important if you intend to put into the ground little plants purchased at nurseries in small plastic packs--the most common approach. At Sherman Gardens, they plant Nov. 1; last year, the first flowers bloomed Dec. 12. Planted in November, the poppies can grow in the usually cool weeks that follow. The peak of bloom will come in January, which is good timing since that is historically our sunniest winter month and rain is least likely to shatter the fragile petals or topple the slender stems. The poppies will continue to bloom through February, and although that is often our rainiest month, they are then sturdy enough to send up new flowers one after another, so they recover fast. By early March, they are fading and can come out before the weather turns consistently warm.
At Sherman Gardens, the bed of poppies was a mass of bloom last January; that lasted until the plants were pulled out Feb. 23 to make way for other flowers. If rain damages the blossoms, the gardeners get down on their hands and knees and cut or snap off all the bruised flowers and broken stems so that only the fresh, new flowers are noticeable--and the show goes on.
Be sure to plant in soil that has been dramatically improved with organic amendments such as peat moss or specially treated sawdust, so that the soil is a bit more acidic and drains fast. More than most annuals, Iceland poppies need excellent soil. And fertilize often, so that the plants come into bloom fast. At Sherman Gardens, they fertilize every week with a dilute solution, but doing so every other week works nearly as well. They water often (Iceland poppies don't like to dry out), and they grow them only in full sun; no shade--not even a little.
Here is another secret--one to try next year, since it is already too late for this year. Plant Iceland poppies from seed sown directly on the ground in late September. Though the seed is incredibly tiny, it grows quickly into extra-sturdy plants, reports Christin Fusano, color specialist at Sherman Gardens, who uses this method in her own garden.
Planting from quart (four-inch) pots is another option, but only if you are going to grow them in containers; these ready-to-bloom plants do poorly if planted in the garden.
Iceland poppies look best in big plantings. One could go so far as to recommend using Iceland poppies only in big, deep beds, where the flowers seem to stack up one in front of the other when seen from afar, much as they would in an arctic meadow. In smaller beds, other flowers would be more dramatic. Plants should be spaced 8 to 10 inches apart so that the foliage overlaps when the plants are mature.
Sherman Gardens planted the most popular strain, named Champagne Bubbles, and of 600 plants, only two produced buds that wouldn't open. (Several years ago, non-opening buds posed a problem that seems to have nearly vanished.) Champagne Bubbles has the best array of colors and large flowers. The blooms are properly proportioned to the length of the stems, which averages about 15 inches.
Sparkling Bubbles is a rival strain that is similar--perhaps shorter and with fewer colors. Ruffled Chief also contains fewer colors and is shorter still, and Garford Giants--sometimes sold simply as "Mixed Giants"--is a bargain strain with smaller flowers on taller stems. All are pictured on pages 52 and 53.