Papaver is made up of at least 70 species of annuals, biennials and perennials, growing mainly in the northern hemisphere, including within the Arctic Circle, with one species found in southern Africa. They are part of the Papaveraceae family, which includes other genera commonly referred to as poppies, including Meconopsis (the blue poppy) and Eschscholzia (the Californian poppy). Generally summer flowering, the Alpine species grow to just 10cm tall while some Papaver orientale cultivars reach 1.2m tall. In general Papaver and poppies need open, sunny situations and well-drained soil.
The best poppies and Papaver
Papaver commutatum ‘Ladybird’
Similar to the common field poppy, this has smaller, bowl-shaped flowers that are an intense scarlet. The black blotches at the base of the petals make this an eye-catching plant. 40cm. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 1-11.
Papaver orientale ‘Beauty of Livermere’
Shiny, blood-red flowers that are 20cm wide on tall stems make this an outstanding papaver. This poppy is often grown from seed, resulting in paler flowers or shorter plants. 1.2m. RHS H7, USDA 3a-7b.
Papaver somniferum seedling
In the wild the opium poppy has variable flowers, ranging from white to deep purple. Garden-sown seedlings can exhibit an even wider range of colours and flower shapes, including, as shown here, double flowers. All have the same glaucous foliage. 1m. RHS H5, USDA 1-11.
Papaver somniferum ‘Lauren’s Grape’
A papaver cultivar that comes reliably true from saved seed if no other forms are grown nearby. The single, bowl-shaped flowers are the deepest purple and grow up to 10cm wide. 90cm. RHS H5, USDA 7b-8a.
A perennial species from southern Spain that has adapted well to northern gardens. Flowers for several weeks in early summer and often self-seeds. Several double-flowered forms available. 45cm. RHS H5, USDA 5a-9b.
Papaver rhoeas ‘Bridal Silk’
The common field poppy has always thrown up the occasional white flower but this is a stable seed strain that reliably produces white flowers with the look of crumpled silk. 35cm. USDA 1a-11.
Papaver nudicaule ‘Pacino’
A neat dome of grey-green foliage on small flower stems. Disliking winter wet, this papaver grows well in gravel. Some nurseries still sell it under its previous name: Papaver miyabeanum ‘Pacino’. 15cm. RHS H7, USDA 6a.
Papaver nudicaule Pulcinella Series
A seed mix noted for producing plants with long-lasting, large flowers in vibrant colours, mainly bright oranges and fiery reds. Single-colour seed packets are occasionally sold. 40cm. RHS H7, USDA 2a-8b.
Papaver nudicaule Gartenzwerg Group
Sometimes known as the Garden Gnome Group, this dwarf strain produces flowers in a range of reds, pinks, yellows, oranges and white. A short-lived perennial, almost always grown as an annual for use as a cut-flower. 30cm. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 6a.
• The annual poppies are among the easiest plants to raise from seed. Most do not like the disturbance caused by transplanting so are best sown in the spring in the place where you want them to flower.
• Overcrowding will produce weedy plants so sow seed thinly and be ruthless in removing seedlings to ensure the plants you are left with have the space to flourish.
• Annual poppies prefer an open, sunny aspect in well-drained, relatively poor soil but will adapt to any soil that is not waterlogged. They will not grow well in deep shade. All produce copious amounts of seed and most will self-seed, although it is a bit of a lottery what colour the flowers of named cultivars of Papaver somniferum and of Papaver rhoeas will be.
• The perennial species tend to be more demanding than the annual ones and although in the wild Papaver orientale grows in poor, rocky soil or in meadows with thin soil, to perform well in the garden the plant needs rich, well-drained soil. Too much moisture and the crown of the plant will rot; too poor a soil and it will not flower.
• After flowering you are left with tatty foliage. The renowned designer Gertrude Jekyll advised hiding it with a scrambling plant, such as Lathyrus latifolius, but Papaver orientale can be cut down to the ground, which will encourage fresh, healthy looking leaves as well as the occasional second flowering.