Symbolic poppies bring colour to the garden, writes Justin Newcombe.
Spring, not autumn, is the time we usually think about poppies and in the northern hemisphere it is spring. It was also in the northern hemisphere that Anzac troops, along with those from other corners of the British empire, laid down their lives on the battle fields of western France. Once the fighting ceased poppies bloomed and through the literature of remembrance, became the symbol of those lost so young.
I find it hard to conceive that something as delicate and pretty as a poppy flower could be the conduit for so much sorrow.
The Flanders or Iceland poppy with its ruby red tissue-paper petals and black eye peering out is the variety most associated with the destruction of World War I, but it would be remiss to pigeonhole its delicate beauty as merely a symbol of human obliteration. Like the other types of poppy available, the Iceland poppy comes in a variety of colours and is both hardy and prolific. Even the smallest patch flushes into a sea of bloom. Poppy seed is incredibly small and potent and once you have it in the garden it will become one of your most reliable spring flowers.
Besides remembrance, poppies are also associated with dreams: not surprisingly, when the opium poppy is the source of many medicines and narcotics. But it is also the producer of many spectacular flowers. While many of the other poppies can match the colour of the opium flower few will match the forms available. The show of the flower as it explodes out of the small bud is astonishing and intoxicating enough for gardeners all over the world to cherish this dynamic symbol of spring. With ruffling petals of pink and purple as well as dark red, maroon and almost black and back to white again, the petals can double up around the seed pod. The flowers don't last though and the petals will fall if they are picked, meaning poppies are the domain of the gardener, not the florist.
During my years as a landscape designer I have often used the Californian poppy because of its versatility, small size and glaciated foliage. This is a desert flower and is a great way to soften succulents and other hardy, more architectural plant forms in a dry garden. Californian poppies also flower for a much longer period, often making it all the way through summer.
We gardeners love the hardiness of poppies. They do very well in dry, depleted soils and will sow them selves into the thinnest of soils, jammed in between pavers or in a rocky crevice. In fact one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to feed your poppies. Make sure the soil is not too high in nitrogen, so no compost or sheep pellets, but also make sure the soil is not too heavy. In damp, clay soils plant poppies on mounds, as you would a pumpkin.
All this may seem a bit unseasonal and without the obvious reference to Anzac Day it probably is. However there is one bright star in the poppy family which does require your attention right now and that is the oriental poppy. This is a perennial, although it does require dividing up every year or two for you to see the best of it. It will reward your lack of TLC with a jovial show of bloom right through next spring, so get planting now. Like all the poppy family it prefers a free-draining arid soil, critical because this poppy has to winter over. Once established they prove incredibly durable and hardy, just as the fathers of our nation were a hundred years ago.