Sunday, 30 October 2011

Iceland poppy in the garden of Tracey Fleischner in Sydney

I have always loved poppies and poppy-like flowers. I can remember as a young child what a thrill it was to see the hairy buds of the Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicale) spilt apart to reveal crumpled silken petals, which would smooth themselves out to form beautiful saucer-shaped blooms, atop a long thin stem and beloved by bees. There is something about the shape of the flower and the prominent stamens that I find irresistible. I also love the shape of the seed pods, which remind me of little pepper shakers. When I became a gardener, I lusted after the poppies I saw in English garden books: the almost surreal blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia), the ethereal white tree poppy (Romneya coulteri) and the sumptuous oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) with their gorgeous colours and flounces. Of course, none of these plants wanted to grow in our mild, humid Sydney climate so I was bitterly disappointed.

Papaver rhoeas, the original Flanders poppy

But about 15 years ago I discovered a substitute for these elusive blooms when I obtained a packet of seeds marked Papaver rhoeas 'Mother of Pearl'. These were a particular strain of the Shirley poppy - which were themselves cultivated forms of the original single red field or Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas) by the Reverend Wilkes in Shirley, Hampshire, UK - bred by the famous English artist and gardener Sir Cedric Morris. He apparently set out to produce a lavender-coloured Shirley poppy but he ended up with a strain of poppies with many strange and beautiful dusky hues. Renowned English gardener Beth Chatto is said to have carefully preserved and nurtured the strain in her Essex garden after Morris's death and the seeds were introduced commercially by Thompson and Morgan in 1987.

With a trembling hand, I sowed the tiny seeds from my packet directly into the ground - as is required by most poppies, which resent being transplanted. I didn't cover the seeds with any seed-raising mix as they were so fine. I chose a sunny position with fairly good, well-drained soil. Minute seedlings appeared and I kept them sheltered from heavy rain with sheets of masonite and thinned them to spacings of 15-20 cm as instructed on the packet. I pampered them and fretted over whether they would ever make it to adulthood.

Papaver rhoeas Mother of Pearl

But they grew into large, robust rosettes of apple-green leaves and flowered in October (from an April sowing), exceeding all my wildest dreams. On 25cm-high stems, they produced beautiful single translucent flowers with the texture of slightly crumpled tissue paper. They came in the most unusual shades, including dove-grey, smoky mauve, ethereal pinks, deep rich pinks, burgundy, maroon, blue grey and lavender-white. Many had a dramatic black central blotch, and some had lighter or darker rims to their petals. They flowered prolifically for four to five weeks, then they were gone, leaving only a memory of their diaphanous beauty. The next autumn, however, my garden was awash with thousands of tiny but recognisable and determined poppy seedlings. They self-seeded like this every year until this year, when, sadly, I can only find one plant. I am going to make sure I collect some seed from this one so I don't lose it completely.

Papaver rhoeas at Red Cow Farm, Southern Highlands NSW

I like all the variants of the field poppy, and enjoy seeing them naturalised in gardens. I particularly love the original red Flanders poppies. They can create a wonderful picture, such as the massed poppies seen at Red Cow Farm in the Southern Tablelands last November (picture left). They all seem to do well in our climate, because as spring annuals, they are not around to be affected by our humid summers, and unlike perennial poppies, don't need a cold winter to flower well. The red Flanders poppies have sombre overtones as well, being associated with Remembrance Day (11 November).

Eschscholzia californica in the garden of Beverley and Ron Jenkins in Sydney

I recently was given seedlings of another interesting annual poppy that self-seeds - it is a lovely clear orange colour and grows from a hairy basal rosette of foliage. I think it is possibly Papaver atlanticum (ht 45 cm) , which comes from Morocco. From the same friend's garden I received some seedlings of a pretty pink Californian poppy - which is not a member of the Papaver genus but is botanically Eschscholzia californica. I have never had much luck with these before but I have put them into a hot, dry bed and am hoping for the best.