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Poppy Pride: Powerful Symbols and Garden Favorites

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It never ceases to amaze me the emotional connection we make with flowers. As the husband of a florist, I sometimes help my wife around her flower shop and even assist with deliveries on busy days. I’ve seen the power of flowers firsthand. Whether it’s welcoming a newborn into the world, accompanying the deceased who have left the world or just telling somebody how you feel, flowers carry heavy symbolism and meaning. And nowhere is this symbolism more apparent than with the poppy.


The Poppy Family

Poppies belong to the Papaveraceae family, a broad collection of flowering plants that include not only poppies, but a few shrub and tree species as well. While there are hundreds of different types of poppies, most people are familiar with their basic form and traits. Poppies have 4-6 petals which can be smooth or have a distinct “crepe paper” look. If you’ve ever picked one, you probably noticed a white milky substance oozing from the stem. This natural latex is a defense mechanism that helps protect the poppy from insects and grazing animals by making it unpalatable. From ancient times to our own modern cultures, poppies have come to symbolize eternal sleep. It's no wonder the Wicked Witch of the West tried to use poppies to send Dorthy into never-ending sleep in the Wizard of Oz story. Here in the United States, we have several native species that perform particularly well in the dry southern regions. For the rest of the country, the classic European poppies are always a popular choice.


Corn Poppy

Papaver rhoeas, or the corn poppy, is probably the most famous of the poppy species. This vigorous annual comes from the Mediterranean region, but has been naturalized all over Europe. I’ll never forget discovering a field full of corn poppies while riding my bike through the English countryside years ago. The deep blood red of the poppies complementing the surrounding green hills was breathtaking. Also while in England I had the privilege of participating in Remembrance Day by wearing an artificial poppy. This Commonwealth tradition honors all the soldiers that have fallen in the line of duty. It’s the corn poppy that the poem “In Flanders Fields” refers to. Corn poppies are very easy to establish and are vigorous self-seeders. For an interesting twist on the corn poppy, give the Shirley poppy a try. This variety of Papaver rhoeas produces pastel colored flowers with a delicate “crinkled-silk” appearance.


Icelandic Poppy

For extreme northern regions of the United States and up into Canada, Icelandic poppy is an excellent choice. Native to subarctic boreal regions, this cold-loving perennial poppy can also be grown as an annual in more southern areas. Icelandic poppy is very easy to grow and comes in a wide range of varieties, and as a result has become quite popular in garden centers in recent years.


California Poppy

But don’t forget about our own native poppies. The western and southwestern U.S. is home to some of the most beautiful poppies on earth, such as theCalifornia poppy Eschscholzia californica. This brilliant orange wildflower, also the state flower of California, is very drought tolerant and highly adaptable to any arid environment. Like most poppies, the California poppy contains several unique chemicals and alkaloids that have been used by native cultures for medicinal purposes.




The Desert Poppies

A close relative of the California poppy, the Mexican gold poppy, is even more drought tolerant than its relative. It also tends to bloom in more yellows than oranges. This native annual can be found on desert hillsides and flowers profusely from February to May especially following warm, wet winters. The Arizona poppy is also at home in hot desert environments, and times its blooms to coincide with the summer rains. Even though it looks very similar to the other desert poppies, the Arizona poppy isn’t actually in the poppy family. But don’t let technicalities stop you from including it in your poppy garden.

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