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Opium Poppies are ephemeral beauties
A garden’s structure is made up of the long established elements of walls, steps and pathways. Alongside these, there are the seemingly permanent fixtures of trees, shrubs, hedges and climbers. Herbaceous plants return to fill their allotted space year after year, so it is often down to our use of annuals to introduce an exciting element of change into the scene. Through them, the artistic gardener can experiment and paint with an ever changing palette of colour and form.
It is not always our best laid plans either that work out well here. Some of the finest seasonal plantings and associations are happy accidents. Self-seeders will cheerfully volunteer their presence in the least expected places. The ‘Opium Poppy’ is one of these, and once sown is a never without, welcome guest to the garden.
Botanically ‘Papaver somniferum,’ this plant has been cultivated for thousands of years. Its derivative drugs were once widely used to lull children to sleep and adults into darker dreams. Still unsurpassed as morphine where a strong painkiller is required, it is its deadly illegal trade as processed heroin that has given the Opium Poppy a bad name. So much so that it has been widely rebranded ‘Peony Flowered Poppy in these politically correct times.
Whatever we call it, as a hardy garden flower it warrants space from all of us. Its leaves are a beautiful greyish blue giving rise to strong, thin wiry stems, holding high the fat flower buds. These burst open through early summer to reveal the jumbled explosion of crumpled tissue paper petals within. Singles or doubles in white through varying shades of pink to purple, these fleeting flowers are soon followed by the big, round pepperpot shaker seedheads.
Where self-sown in the garden, best results come from thinning the seedlings to allow the selected few room to develop fully. Not at all fussy as to soil or situation so long as it is sunny, the finest one I came across this year was squeezing out of the improbably small gap between a busy tarmaced road and nine foot wall. It proudly stood waist high, pushing numerous full petalled flowers skyward.
Opium Poppies are ephemeral beauties perhaps, with something of a reputation. But these surprise, self-siting summer guests are a welcome addition to any garden.
Chris Crowder is head gardener at Levens Hall
Jobs to do this week:
Place conservatory plants outside for a breath of fresh air and a refreshing summer shower.
Keep picking courgettes, or they will soon become marrows!
Get some catalogues in to help choose next year’s spring flowering bulbs.