Monday, 10 August 2009

Seeding Poppies

Poppies are not only a garden flower. They are the source of opium, but also a nutritious food source. They are part of our culture, appearing in everything from children's stories to war memorials. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions are nearly overcome by eternal sleep in the beautifully dangerous poppy field. In Libba Bray's young adult books, some of the most dangerous characters are the poppy warriors.

Especially here in the UK, the poppy has become a powerful symbol honouring the sacrifices made by both servicemen (and women) and civilians during WWI and subsequent wars. Unlike most plants, poppies grow best in disturbed ground, and so vibrant red poppies (popaver rhoeas) quickly blanketed the countryside that war had ravaged. After watching his friend die in battle in 1915, John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields that captures the image and symbolism of this unmissable flower.

After wearing paper poppies every Remembrance Day, my husband and I decided this spring to plant some poppies. We had recently chopped down a large bush, and so I tossed several packets of poppy seeds over the space, sprinkled some soil on top, and hoped for the best. Although birds snacked on some of the seeds, enough of them survived that we had about a dozen poppy plants grow and bloom. Now that the plants are done flowering, it's time to harvest and plant the seeds so that we can have more plants next year.

So if you have access to poppy plants, here's my process for seeding poppies.

1. Gather the dried flower heads.

They'll kind of shrivel up into balls with the poppies inside. If you just leave them out on the flowers, they might go to seed by themselves (it works in the wild), but they might be eaten by bugs, or rot if there's too much rain. I like gathering them because them because it looks nicer and then you can control where to plant the new poppies.

2. Take out the seeds--when they're ready they should be black.

3. Either store the seeds until use (in a cool, dry, dark place) or plant.

Remember that poppies aren't like most plants. They don't want to grow in carefully planted beds with perfect soil. Toss them into garden problem spots. Try digging an area roughly with a trowel or shovel, tossing a little sand on it (or gravel), and then sprinkling with seeds. Cover with a little soil. I never specifically watered mine, and I didn't bother weeding around them either. They grew just fine without the extra work.

If you want to grow poppies, remember that although red poppies are the most famous, there are actually many different varieties and colours of poppies. Most of my poppies are purple.

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