July 7, 2012


Colorful Shirley Poppies raised from seed.
If you crave the delicate blossoms and stems of poppies and want to try growing some in your garden this year, consider the Shirley Poppy over Iceland Poppies. The 'Shirley Poppy' encompasses a cluster of selected strains of a a specific poppy - Papaver rhoeas. It's name comes from the village of Shirley, England, where the first strain was discovered in the late 1800's.

It's hard to find someone who cannot identify a poppy form - a tissue papery, crepe like flounce of fragile petals and a central boss of stamens. The poppy form is study of simplicity and poise, not as simple as a daisy, and not overly complex in form, it may suffer from the fact that school children rarely draw a poppy when asked to draw a flower. Still, it the poppy may be he most mysterious (read-un-seen) 'common' flower in our visual lexicon, for the 'idea' of 'poppy' exists in the greater consciousness of most everyone (Close your eyes and you can visualize it in your imagination), yet we rarely can touch one aside from the more common Oriental Poppy seen in many perennial borders, or the Iceland Poppy, seen in most big-box stores in the spring.  

We live a world that can only imagine fields of poppies, their unique symmetry and their loose, gossamer thin, over-lapping, tissue papery blossoms on wiry stems, but we rarely experience their physical presence. Yet pop-cultural references abound -  'the Wizard of Oz' ,Martha Stewart, Etsy,  Pinterest, Wedding Blogs - our digitally saturated web world informs us daily that we must grow or obtain 'the poppy', and crepe paper crafted ones aside, I am on a mission to inspire you to actually step away from your laptop, and to go grow some yourself, so that you can appreciate and experience the real joy of poppyhood.

Colorful annual Shirley poppy in a vase
I've noticed that our honey bees prefer the Shirley Poppies over most any flower in the garden. One look at the boss of stamens, and one can see why.

Mastering annual poppy culture requires that you follow some basic, sound horticultural knowledge.

1. Sow seed early - February or March in New England, and earlier in USDA Zones 6 and up.
2. Allow seeds to get light ( lightly rake the find seeds in and tamp down). They need light to germinate.
3. Thin seedlings early ( do not transplant, rather carefully pluck seedlings which are too close together, for they are tap roots and will sulk if transplanted).
4. Allow plants to develop with a minimum of disturbance, keep weeds out, and pray for temperatures in the 50ºs 
5. By June, you will be blessed with the goose neck, prickly buds and shortly after, gorgeous grey, pearl, salmon and blackberry colored blossoms.

Multicolored annual poppies raised from seed


Shirley Poppies are actually not a distinct species, but rather a strain, or even more correctly, multiple strains of the species P. rhoeas which have been selected for a color break from the wild species. Rather then completely red, the first strains were carefully selected for their pastel colors and muddy tints so stylish in the late 1800's. The name Shirley Poppies comes from where the first strain was developed, in the village of Shirley, in the United Kingdom where the vicar of a parish in the village made the very first selections, thus, isolating the first strains from wild poppies. Since then, all Shirley Poppy selections have originated from that first selection, and many are still grown today. The finest colors for mauve and smokey tones come from a strain called 'Sir Cedric Morris' and the grayest come from the 'Mother of Pearl' strains, which date back to 1889, and 1910 respectively. Both are work seeking out today for their distinctive colors, smokey grays and lavender, mauve edged in white, and opalescent shadowy tints. My favorite? The occasional dove gray or pewter blossom.

In any strain, there will always be some red flowers, so take note, especially if you are a color -purist.  You will have to pull these if you dare, but I find that in any mix, the colors seem to work perfectly, and add to the Victorian elegance of the selections.

Mother of Pearl strain of Shirley Poppies


Success with Shirley Poppies correlated directly to seed strain, and seed source.   for unlike Iceland Poppies (P. nudicale), one cannot buy pre-started seedlings or plants at garden centers, and if you happen to find them, they will not grow as well as garden-sown plants.  If you desire poppies as I am showing in the photos here from my garden last year, the I suggest sourcing the gentle tinted strains - Sir Cedric Morris, now more commonly sold under the name 'Mother of Pearl', for one can replace the other, and both are variable - both strains which I highly recommend as they present perhaps the finest in color selection.


Prepare the soil by simple scratching the surface, if you are sowing in a raised bed, or turn over with a pitch fork and then rake away any rocks and sticks, to create a smooth surface where the seeds and sand can fall gently. Poppy seed needs light to germinate, so the surface texture before sowing should be relatively flat, and not furrowed, to minimize seed being covered too deeply once tamped down and watered in.

Poppy seed is extremely small, almost dust -like. Seed this small is best mixed into sand first, before sowing, which helps distribute the seed more evenly onto the surface of the soil.


Seed will often come in little, wax paper sachet's  within a traditional paper seed packet. Depending on the seed supplier, you may get only a few dozen of these precious tiny seeds, or nearly a teaspoon full. Most will provide only 30 - 100 seeds, and these  I mix a few packets of seed together with about 1 cup of dry sand, which I then carefully pour into a kitchen sieve with holes large enough to allow the seed and the sand to pass through ( this will take some practice, to find the perfect sieve). If you find a supplier that provides you with a lot of seed, don't be tempted to use too much, for a thick sowing is what you want to avoid. About 1/2 teaspoon of seed to 1 cup of sand before sowing a space which is 6 feet long by 2 feet wide will be sufficient.


All annual poppy seed is small, so tiny, it can be like dust. I find that mixing seed with sand before sowing makes not only the sowing an easier task, it helps separate the seed so that an even distribution can be achieved. All poppies dislike transplanting, as they are tap-rooted plants, and need to form a straight root with minimal or zero root disturbance. This is why one rarely finds annual poppies sold in garden centers, they are old fashioned annual which must be sown where they are to be grown.

After mixing the seed into coarse sand, the entire mixture is placed into a sieve with the proper hole dimension, to allow both the seed and sand to pass through evenly.

The seed and sand mixture is then 'dusted' onto the surface of the prepared bed. Remember - poppy seed needs light to germinate, so do not cover the seed, and be careful not to 'dust' the sand too liberally. A thinner application of seed is better than a thicker one. Strive for seeds distributed every 4 or 5 inches, as plants growing together will aid in staking, and help hold each other up.

Tamp and firm soil before watering.
Tap the sieve with the seed and sand mixture carefully over the prepared bed, in much the same way one would dust a cake with confectioners sugar. Follow up with a firm tamping of the ground to ensure that each tiny seed comes in contact with the soil. I use a scrap piece of wood, but you can use anything from a brick, to your boot if it is dry ( avoid using a damp muddy boot, for you risk picking up more seed than you are sowing).


In mild areas, or in the south, annual poppies prefer being sown in autumn, but in areas where winters are brutally cold and wet, an early spring sowing is safest. I prepare a bed where only poppies are to be grown, in this way, weeding around the tiny seedlings is easier. Dedicating an edge of a raised bed in the vegetable garden is a great place to plant a row of poppies, and any competition can be eliminated easily. 

March to April is the preferred time to sow outdoors, for poppies can endure cold temperatures and light frosts while seedlings. Not every year will be the perfect poppy growing year, just as not every year will be the perfect sweet pea growing year, but one must try each year, and cherish those which bring cool nights in the spring and early summer.

Water newly planted poppy seeds
Once the soil surface is tamped down, water in with a spray of water, or with a sprinkler. This is essential now, and until the seedlings are 3 inches tall, for if allowed to dry out in early spring, an entire crop can be lost. 


Tiny poppy seedlings in the garden.
Newly emerging seedlings are tiny - watch carefully for weeds, and learn to identify what the young seedlings of Shirley Poppies look like ( look closely in the foreground of the image).
Look for seedlings at the two week mark,  and look with care, for they will be extremely small. The thin cotyledons will look pine needle-like. Learn to identify what poppy seedlings look like and what weeds look like,( a good basic skill to practice here if you are a beginner), as weeding will become your greatest chore from now until your poppies bloom.

Five week old seedlings of Shirley Poppies in the garden.
Five week seedlings of Shirley Poppies - even the foliage is attractive.

Annual Shirley Poppies being staked.
These three month-old seedlings are almost ready for staking. At this stage, I add twigs and sometimes twine, weaving in and around the tender stems. One must do this early enough before a spring rain shower can cause damage
to the fleshy celery-like stems.

THINNING - Each week after the seedling emerge, you will need to check for weeds, and some careful thinning if plants seed too close, but poppies will have a way of producing both dominant plants and weaker ones, so most of the time, no thinning will be needed which is best, as even careful extraction of seedlings can damage nearby seedling roots. Poppies are best left alone, with little tending, which is where most seed catalogs probably get the 'easy to grow' statement.

Poppies sown in March will seed as if they are growing painfully slow, and you may be tempted to add other annuals in-between, but be patient - plant will suddenly take off and grow many inches in  only a few weeks in late May, and by mid June, flower buds will start to open. 

Shirley Poppies carefully staked and forming seed pods.
Carefully staked Shirley poppies in my garden in early July in full, color glory. Blossoms are short lived, a day or so, but new ones open as fast as the petals fall. Try to keep seed pods from forming, and keep up with your staking, as needed.


CONTINUE STAKING -By July 1, plants should be in full bloom.  At this stage, your greatest challenge will be staking your plants, ( one never wants to see stakes, so fastidious gardeners often use birch twigs and olive-colored yarn), for poppies are tender and fragile, and even a passing skunk or cat can disrupt a border planting, resulting a terrible mess with just one evening's romp. You may feel that your plants appear strong and sturdy, but one downpour or a fierce hail storm can wreck a border in an instant.

Small bamboo stakes placed carefully within the plants will be necessary as well as staking twine or yarn, Great skill may be needed to create an innovative staking method where one cannot see the structure. Use  your best judgement ( and macrame skills).


Proper nutrition is essential. I use a 10-10-10 water soluble fertilizer once in early spring at half strength when the seedlings are 2-3 inches tall, and then I follow up with a flower strengthening fertilizer with an analysis of 4-10-8 when plants are 1 foot tall. Always be sure that the grown is damp ( not wet). Poppies have few diseases beyond mildew and fungus, which alone, are quite damaging. There is little one can do once the weather becomes hot and humid, except to break out the gin and tonic, and sit back and watch the poppies fail. Relax, and just assume that this will happen eventually, and have a back up plan for the same spot once your plants are done blooming, around the second or third week of July. I sow pansy seed for the fall.

Allowing Shirley Poppies to seed and self sow.
Once hot and humid weather arrives in mid-July, the annual poppy season is over, as practically overnight, fungus and rot sets in. Seed can be saved but the strains are best is sown with fresh seed each year rather than allowing seed to self sow. Still, I leave a few seed pods to mature in the vegetable garden.


The Shirley poppy season ends all too quickly, starting to blossom in mid-June, and ending in early to mid-July, but that should never stop us from expecting more in some years, or from enjoying their brief gift of 'wow'. Generally speaking, as soon as the hot and humid weather arrives here in New England, which is around mid - July. In coastal areas, the poppy season is over. If you garden in the Pacific coastal areas, your season may start earlier, and last longer, if you garden in the mid-Atlantic, it may be shorter.

I feel that I should manage some expectations here. Annual poppies are not architectural statements, ( the planted beds are rarely beautiful statements), as they are casual and loose. if you are fussy about  garden design, they are best planted near fences, in shabby cottage gardens or in clearly defined spaces where they can occupy a large circle of soil for a few, albeit spectacular weeks in early summer, and then removed once they have faded. You must then replace them with something else seasonal and later.  One must also accept the colors they come in, so forget designing a color palette around them. Seed strains are simply too variable.   Be aware that they will want to self seed, but they are far from  being pests, but clearly they are not recommended  plants for control freaks or formal plantings.

My best advice is to invite Shirley Poppies and P. rhoeas into your garden, gracefully. Think of them as rare, French Impressionist flowers ( as, well, they are!) - rejoice in their surprising colors as if they were dabs of bright colored coral tinted paint in your landscape - virtual pointillism alive in your garden. Accept that they are terribly short lived and briefly stunning, and most importantly, they can be a statement of both your horticultural prowess, and your taste level, as well.


  1. Thank you so much for your advice and detailed 'how-to'. I had almost given up in frustration but will try your methods next year and hope for a beautiful flowering.

  2. hopflower9:36 AM

    I have poppies on my list this year. Absolutely scrumptious!

  3. Interesting about your bees liking your poppies so much. I have a small apiary and planted poppies for the bees but they seem much more interested in the stocks and salvias.

  4. I'm definitely going to grow them in my garden, they're beautiful! It's really nice to have flowers in your own backyard so you can just pick them out anytime and have fresh flowers on your vase everyday.

  5. Thank you for an excellent article. I have tried unsuccessfully to grow starting indoors. Now I know why they don't do well. I have 2 or 3 questions I was hoping you could answer. It doesn't sound like you collect the seeds and resow in the spring nor do you let them self sow if you say do not let seed heads form. Why do you not do that? Do you just buy new seeds each spring to seed? Thanks for your help.

    1. Sprout - I would save more seeds, but more often than not, my Shirley poppies' decay in our hot and humid summer. I mention that often a few pods mature, but I only get a few seedlings reseeding each year, and since I raise my Shirley poppies in my veg. garden, I dig and disturb the soil too much, with autumn crops and by cultivating the soil, few seedling survive. Poppies resow best in undisturbed soil, where there is no mulch used, conditions like that are rare in many gardens today. With seeds costing only a couple of bucks for a large packet, I prefer to just buy them each year, unless I get a good seed set.

    2. Thank you very much for such a quick reply and for the information. We are growing as a group for a seed share project so your information has been very helpful!

  6. Anonymous2:10 PM

    I have a fungle on my lovely poppies the stems go black and the buds go over and die also on the leaves can you help please . thank you

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  8. Looking at these pictures makes me want to jump right into the garden and start planting. Love your website, design, images and content - I'll definitely come back for more gardening tips when I get a chance.

  9. Really excellent post...and the given great knowledge..your post given great knowledge..

  10. A just lovely and helpful article. Its mid June in PA/6a so I may have missed the flowering of my first time planted Shirley poppies, but I'm still glad I am immersed in their lore now and hope to meet their blossoms. if not this year than next. really cant wait


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