Red poppy: how to grow Papaver rhoeas

Regina
Regina
Regina
Regina

I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.

Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic

The red poppy is making a comeback in fields and along roadsides. Here is everything you need to know about the different common poppy varieties and some tips on sowing and caring for field poppies.

Red poppies in bloom
Common poppies are found in the wild, especially in fields, on embankments and in dry meadows [Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/ Shutterstock.com]

The red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is the symbol of remembrance and was famously mentioned in the popular war poem by John McCrae. It is also known as the corn poppy because it is often found growing amongst corn in the fields. Read on to find out about the common poppy and some popular varieties as well as tips on how to grow them at home.

Common poppy: flowering time, properties and origin

The corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas), also known as the corn rose or Flanders poppy, belongs to the poppy family, Papaveraceae. Like all its relatives, it produces a white milky sap which oozes out upon injury. Papaver rhoeas is one of the four species of poppies native to the UK and is found in the wild, primarily on road verges and in farmland and scrub. The species probably originated in the temperate latitudes of Eurasia, but due to the global distribution of the poppy as a field weed, it is no longer possible to say for sure. The poppy is known for its thin papery petals that close up in stormy weather, wind, and at night. In the past, these petals were used to make red ink.

Red poppies are not perennials, but rather annuals or biennials. Poppies germinate anew each year from the seeds of the previous year’s plants, which die back in autumn to mature as seeds. The corn poppy reaches a height of 40 to 70 cm. Common poppy leaves are rough and covered with coarse hairs. Their shape is elliptic to pinnately lobed with some sharply serrated leaf sections. Numerous flower stalks form on the thin, hairy and sparsely branched stems soon after germination in spring. Field poppies flower between June and August. Many insects love corn poppies because they provide a lot of pollen. Bees (Apis) in particular like to roll around in the poppy’s stamens. Poppy flowers are ephemeral creatures for their flowers usually only last for one to three days. After this, the red petals fall off and the elongated seed pod appears. Late in the summer from August onwards, the numerous poppy seeds inside ripen and become the typical blue-grey colour. The pods begin to crack on the sides as they ripen, allowing the mature seeds to be released when the wind blows.

Numerous poppy seed pods
The ripe seed pods open and release poppy seeds into the air as they move in the wind [Photo: Inna Giliarova/ Shutterstock.com]

Is the red poppy a protected species? While the poppy is not a protected species, it is slowly making a comeback due to stricter laws concerning pesticides as well as more targeted and reduced use thereof.

Our favourite poppy varieties

Corn poppies are mainly known as a wildflower in the fields, but there are also different coloured and sometimes double varieties. Do note, however, that poppies grown from seed are not usually uniform, so despite having the same variety name, they can vary greatly in colour.

Amazing grey poppy in purple hues
The ‘Amazing Grey’ variety features unusual shades of grey and purple [Photo: Mami Nozaki/ Shutterstock.com]
  • ‘Amazing Grey’: Features the most unusual colour for field poppies with flowers in grey-purple to light shades of grey-blue. The 40 – 50 cm high Papaver rhoeas ‘Amazing Grey’ is particularly attractive in combination with pure white or black flowering plants.
  • ‘Angels Choir’: Heavenly mix of silky double flowers in various shades of red, orange, purple and pink. This poppy variety grows to a height of about 70 cm.
  • ‘Bridal Silk’: Pure white poppies with large, single flowers and yellow stamens. This variety grows to about 50 cm high and flowers from June.
Mother of pearl poppy
The heirloom poppy variety ‘Mother of Pearl’ features pastel and white flowers [Photo: MarinaGreen/ Shutterstock.com]
  • ‘Mother of Pearl’: British heirloom poppy variety with a mixture of simple white to misty pastel shades of pink, pink and grey-purple. The plants grow 50 – 70 cm tall.
  • ‘Pandora’: Extraordinary, semi-double poppy variety in exquisite shades of deep burgundy to paler pinky-reds with silvery-grey stripes. Poppies of the ‘Pandora’ variety grow to about 70 cm high.
  • ‘Pierrot’: Red poppy variety with a black spot on each petal. The variety reaches a height of 50 to 60 cm.
  • ‘Shirley Double’: Mixture of poppies about 60 cm high with double blossoms in shades of red and pink, some with touches of white.
A field of Shirley double poppies
The poppy variety ‘Shirley Double’ bears semi-double flowers in various colours [Photo: zzz555zzz/ Shutterstock.com]

Sowing and planting poppies

The poppy requires light to germinate. This means that in addition to water and warmth, the seeds only need a very thin covering of soil, or none at all, to germinate. The optimal location for poppies is in warm, dry and sunny areas with well-drained and nutrient-rich soil. Since the small poppy seedlings hardly ever survive transplanting, it is best to sow the poppy seeds directly into the bed. To do this, sow the poppy seeds in the spring between March and May in a suitable spot in the bed, scattering them generously. Prepare the bed beforehand by making sure to remove any weeds and loosening the soil with a fork. There is no need to cover the seeds with soil. In most cases, careful watering of the seeds is sufficient to ensure good soil contact for germination.

Poppy in a pot: Poppies grow well in pots, making them an excellent choice for balconies and terraces. To plant a poppy in a pot, first prepare a 5 litre or larger pot with good drainage. To do this, create a 5 cm drainage layer made of sand, expanded clay or gravel in the bottom of the pot to prevent waterlogging. Fill the pot with a high-quality potting soil, such as our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost. Lightly compact the soil and then sow the poppy seeds in it. Water carefully after sowing so as not to wash away the tender seeds.

Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost
Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost

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How to care for poppies properly: watering, pruning and co.

Once sown, poppies need little attention. If the seeds germinate too closely, you can transplant some of them. The most important care measure is regular watering, especially in the seedling phase and for potted poppy plants. In most cases, it is not necessary to fertilise the plants. Pruning back faded stems allows the corn poppy to form more young buds, therefore extending the flowering period. To prevent poppies from seeding, cut out the seed stalks before they mature. If you want to have the poppy as a cut flower in a vase, pick the nearly open buds instead of open flowers. This way, the poppy will only bloom once in water and will last longer.

Poppy seedlings in a pot
Regular watering is especially important for corn poppies during the seedling phase, [Photo: REN Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

Propagating poppies

The easiest way to propagate poppies is by using their abundance of seeds. After successful pollination, the seed pods begin to grow and ripen over the summer. From August to September, the plants and pods turn brown and progressively dry out. The poppy seeds are ready for harvesting when you can hear rattling inside the pod when it moves. This indicates that the pod has opened and thus the poppy seeds are ready for dispersal. Harvest the whole seed pods and dry indoors for a few days. Then let the seeds trickle out and store them in a cool, dry and dark place until the next sowing. Poppy seeds germinate well for about three to five years.

Poppy seeds coming out of the pods
Poppies are propagated from their numerous, blue-grey seeds [Photo: Andris Tkacenko/ Shutterstock.com

Use and components

In the past, poppy leaves were used to brew soothing teas. In traditional medicine, the dried petals were also used. They contain very small amounts of alkaloids, especially rhoeadine, which, like the much more effective opioids of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), were used to treat pain, restlessness, and sleep disorders.

Is the red poppy poisonous?

The common poppy is considered to be a poisonous wildflower. The milky sap in particular contains higher concentrations of poisonous alkaloids. The corn poppy is therefore poisonous to dogs, horses and other animals that eat it. In small quantities, roasted seeds and petals are edible and harmless. The seeds taste slightly nutty and can be used as a tasty decoration in baked goods and salads. However, excessive consumption can lead to gastrointestinal complaints, nausea and stomach aches.

Drying and preserving poppies

Poppies do not dry well as a whole in a vase, because after a short period of time all the petals fall off. It is, however, possible to press the flower with its stem and preserve it in this way. For this, only use plants that have opened their flowers on the same day. The seed pods, on the other hand, can be dried very well. As soon as they have turned brown, you can harvest them with or without the stalk and dry them at room temperature. You can also keep the seed pods – which look great in decorative arrangements and wreaths – for years.

Chickweed (Stellaria media), like Flanders poppy, is often found in fields and on roadsides, but can also be grown in vegetable beds. Find out how to recognise this edible wild herb and how to use it when preparing delicious meals.

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