Deb Babcock: 'Idiot-proof' poppies

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Poppies are a beautiful addition to Steamboat Springs gardens. It doesn't hurt that they're nearly 'idiot proof.'

Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

— I was asked a while ago by Tom Ross if there were any "idiot-proof" flowers for local gardeners who haven't had much luck with anything else. One plant that comes to mind is the poppy, specifically the Papaver genus, which includes 120 species of the plant also known as Oriental poppy, Icelandic poppy, opium poppy and corn poppy. It's popular because of the colorful paper-like flower that blooms early in the season as well as its ease of growth and reseeding ability.

Poppies come in varieties that are annual, biennial and perennial.

Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) are the perennial orange-red flowers that seem the most popular and prolific in the mountain gardens of Steamboat. They are classified as USDA Zone 2-7 plants - perfect for our mountain area. They bloom in early spring and therefore should be placed behind other garden plants so that the foliage is hidden when the plants die back in mid-summer after blooming.

Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule) are short-live perennial plants usually grown here as annuals or biennials. They come in a variety of colors including pink, orange, yellow, red and white, and are considered a good cut flower.

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is the plant from which opium and opiates such as morphine and codeine are extracted from latex in the immature seed pods. Its matured seeds are used in bagels, muffins and cakes and can be pressed to create poppy seed oil used in cooking as well as a base for oil-based paint. The seeds and oil are not narcotic because the potential for creating opium is lost once the pod matures. The law regarding opium poppies is somewhat unclear because the seeds are widely sold in grocery stores throughout the country and the beautiful pods are used in dried flower arrangements. If you grow poppies purely as a source of opiates, you are clearly violating U.S. drug laws, but growing it as an ornamental plant is a less clear legal position.

Papaver rhoeas, also known as Corn poppy, Shirley poppy and field poppy, is a beautiful annual poppy flower. In my garden, I let the seed pods mature into the early winter so that the seeds spill out before the snow comes and I have a new crop of these beautiful flowers each year. You can find this plant in all shades of white, cream, pink, salmon and red. I especially appreciate the fullness of the bloom, almost like a carnation.

The California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica, is another annual popular as a border plant in rock gardens and strewn in wildflower meadows.

If you want to use poppies in a cut flower arrangement, it is recommended to sear the cut end of the stem (seal by placing the cut end over a flame) before placing in water.

It's best to spread your poppy seeds on top of the soil in the fall or as early as possible in the spring. There's no need to cover the seeds with soil. Poppies love sunny locations and are pretty xeric, requiring little water.

So if you're looking for a colorful flower needing minimal care, consider this "idiot-proof" plant for your garden.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service Office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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