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GARDENING : Poppy Family Boasts International Cousins

March 26, 1994|From Associated Press

The poppy family (Papaveraceae) spans the globe from the Arctic to the tropics, but their flowers share a common quality.

"The poppy is the most transparent and delicate of all blossoms. Other flowers rely on the texture of their surface for color. The poppy is painted glass; it never glows so brightly as when the sun shines through it," wrote John Ruskin 100 years ago.

The corn poppy ( Papaver rhoeas ) is aptly named, for it once dotted the cornfields of Europe with its brilliant red flowers. ("Corn" is any grain in the queen's English).

The translucent flowers of this annual are born on sprawling stalks two feet high. The variety, Flanders, is named for the poem, "Flander's Fields," in which the blood-red flowers symbolize lives lost in war. This is why red tissue-paper poppies are still distributed in memory of wars' victims on Veterans Day.

In the late 19th Century, the Rev. E. Wilks of the Shirley vicarage in England noticed a single corn poppy with a fine white line along the edges of its petals. From that one plant, Shirley poppies were developed.

Corn and Shirley poppies begin blooming shortly after spring-flowering bulbs have finished their show and continue blooming through July.

The California poppy ( Eschscholtzia californica) was named in honor of a Russian ship surgeon named Eschscholt, who admired these bright orange flowers blanketing California hillsides.

The three- to five-inch flowers of California poppies are borne above finely cut, bluish-green foliage and bloom from spring to fall. New varieties are available in a range of colors--cream, orange, yellow and red. Plant these flowers in the sunniest parts of the garden, because bright light is needed to coax their petals to unfold. Every night the petals close, a cycle that continues even after you cut their flowers for bouquets.

Iceland poppies ( P. nudicaule ) bear their delicately ruffled and sweetly scented flowers on slender stalks above a whorl of deeply cut leaves. Like the California poppy, the Iceland poppy grows as a perennial in its native Arctic habitat.

Over much of this country, though, summers are too mild for Iceland poppies, so they often lose their perennial character. Plants from early sowings bloom from midsummer into autumn of their first year. The second year the luxuriant blossoms unfold shortly after daffodils bloom, then continue throughout the season.

The old-fashioned Oriental poppy ( P. orientale ) is the only garden perennial among the poppies. Few perennials equal the dazzle of the Oriental poppy. The species has huge, flamboyant, brick-red flowers with a purplish-black splotch at the base of each petal. The blossoming period is relatively short, in early summer.

Soon after the blossoms fade, the leaves die back and the plant enters a period of dormancy until late summer. To mask the dying foliage and carry the succession of bloom, try planting flowers such as zinnias and calendulas among these poppies.

All poppies thrive on neglect. Sprinkle the seeds onto a flower bed where the soil is well-drained and forget about them. Poppies are a flower of cottage gardens and meadows rather than neatly groomed formal flower beds. Let poppies sprawl so that their flowers can flop about on the ends of their stalks, bright splashes of color against muted green foliage.

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