Romancing the Blue Poppy

This is the right time of year to think about growing the Himalayan blue poppy, genus Meconopsis, if you want success with it from seed.

Eleanor Perenyi, whose book of garden essays, Green Thoughts, is one of my favourites, confessed to a total failure in her attempts to grow Meconopsis from seed. I can say with considerable pride that I have achieved success, not once, but several times. I think one of the secrets is to use absolutely fresh seed — no older than 6 months after harvest — which means that most commercially available seed is too old by the time it reaches the hopeful gardener’s hands.

I purchased a plant of M. betonicifolia in the late ’90s.  It bloomed and set seed, which I gathered and seeded early in 2000. I ended up with ten or so young plants, which I set out that autumn into a fussily prepared bed under an Ailanthus (“tree of heaven” — ha!). In the summer of 2001 they bloomed gorgeously — a pool of heavenly blue.With typical gardener’s hubris, I expected repeat performances over the years, so didn’t bother to take pictures. The following spring only a few plants emerged from what was by then a root-infested bed. Blue poppies are notoriously sensitive to root competition. The struggling survivors succumbed over the summer, and that was that.

Since then, I have had a measure of success by growing these plants in less rooty situations and in pots, but never again have I had the alluring mass of bloom (if you can consider a 3′ x4′ patch a “mass”) as in 2001. Last summer, in fact, was a bust — only a couple of wretched little blooms on my potted specimens, probably because I hadn’t bothered to add fresh compost to the pots. Blue poppies demand slavish attention from their gardeners. Without it, they die in true prima donna fashion.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is my method for growing Meconopsis from seed. First, get fresh seed, either from a plant you have bought or from a fellow gardener. The seeds are ready to gather by late August or early September. Preserve them in cool, dry conditions until the following January or February. To achieve germination, two things are needed — fluctuating temperatures and light. Because you will be subjecting them to outdoor conditions, use durable, shallow (2-3″ deep) vessels with drainage holes.  I use plastic honey containers with lots of little holes punched into the bottoms. Containers that come with translucent lids are especially good. Use a commercial seed-starting mix, dampened and firmed into the containers. Tamp it down and smooth it with some sort of suitable implement, such as a flat-bottomed glass. Scatter the seeds carefully over the surface, trying to space them evenly. The trick is to achieve a balance between too many, which will result in overcrowding, and too few. You have to allow for a certain amount of germination failures and seedling deaths. Don’t cover the seeds with the soil mix; they need light to germinate. Set the seed containers into an inch or so of water until the surface is wet, then allow them to drain and place in a warm spot, such as the top of a hot water tank or refrigerator. It’s probably a good idea to cover the containers with a sheet of plastic at this point. Leave them in the warm spot for a week or 10 days, then move to a sheltered outdoor spot. I put my seed pots next to the foundation on the north side of the house. At this stage, put the lids on your containers, if you have lids. Otherwise, enclose each container in its own plastic bag, making sure that the bag doesn’t sag down onto the soil surface (check for this after rain). The idea is that they will be exposed to temperatures that occasionally dip below freezing over a period of two months or so — January through March here on Vancouver Island. By April you should see seedlings emerging! At this point, damping-off is your worst enemy. Remove the covers from the pots, at least partially. You don’t want them to dry out, but you don’t want fungus-producing conditions to prevail. Air circulation is essential. Once the seedlings are big enough to handle (carefully!) transplant them to individual 4″ pots, using a humus-rich, well-draining soil mix. In early fall, transplant the young plants to their permanent spots, in root-free, well-drained soil amended with lots of compost, and a situation that gets morning sun but is shaded in the hottest parts of the day.

A disclaimer — this method works in the temperate Pacific Northwest, where winter low temperatures rarely exceed -5 degrees C (23 F). In truly frigid climates, something else is called for. The idea is to expose your seed pots to fluctuating temperatures that cross the freezing point several times.

There is a lovely little book about Meconopsis by Bill Terry, who grows a number of species with much more success than anything I have managed on my rooty little patch. The title is Blue Heaven.  Even though it’s a small book, it has many illustrations to whet the reader’s appetite for these fascinating plants. The cover absolutely radiates blueness.

I will be fussing over my plants, potted and otherwise, hoping that they will bloom better this summer than last, and that I will get seeds to plant next winter. With blue poppies, it’s wise always to have a few new plants coming on to replace those that expire all too easily. Nicola Furlong, a fellow Smashwords author and WordPress blogger here on Vancouver Island,  is also an aficionado of the blue poppy. Both she and I will post photographs of success on our blogs.