growing poppies in pots

Blue Poppies in Pots? Not!

One of the most common internet searches that leads to hits on my blog is “growing blue poppies  in pots.” Sadly, I think I can now say that it’s not possible to do this well.

I have grown blue poppies (Meconopsis)  in pots and in the ground, and the differences in plant size and vigor are striking.

Three or four years ago I had 12 plants (mostly seedlings of ‘Lingholm’) in gallon-sized pots. A couple of them bloomed in the spring of 2010, but none bloomed well, and all but one perished in subsequent winters. It’s hard to regulate soil drainage in a pot, and I suspect they simply rotted.

Last spring I grew another batch of plants, fifteen of which came through the winter (in 4-inch pots) and sprouted out this spring. I planted eleven of them in a crescent-shaped bed on the north side of a large deciduous magnolia. This spring and summer have been cool and relatively wet, ideal conditions for blue poppies. I watered the plants thoroughly once per week. Now, near the end of July, they look promising, and certainly more robust than any of my pot-grown specimens. The biggest problem has been leaf-stems being snapped as the leaves are whirled around by occasional strong winds. I have planted three plants of Lamium maculatum ‘Pink Pewter’ near some of the blue poppies, hoping that they will act as a kind of windbreak. (I may come to regret this, if the lamium proves too vigorous and swamps the poppies).

Most of them have formed small offsets, and I hope for blooms next spring. Remembering my very first planting of M. betonicifolia in 2000, I am confident that they will winter well, since my sandy soil is well-drained. (It’s too bad I didn’t bother taking pictures of those original blue poppies when they bloomed in 2001. They were doomed, of course, because M. betonicifolia has that monocarpic habit to start with, and these were way too close to a Tree of Heaven. A few sprouted out feebly the following spring, but I could see that they had no future).

If this lot blooms next year, I will definitely take pictures. It remains to be seen how well they tolerate magnolia roots.

A Gardener’s Blues : Growing Meconopsis

In an essay entitled “Blues” in her book Green Thoughts : a writer in the garden, Eleanor Perenyi says this:

“Still, they [other blue-flowering plants] can’t be classified as total disasters. I reserve that category for, first, Meconopsis betonicifolia, the fabled Himalayan poppy, the color of a summer sky, with golden anthers — and my abominable snowman. It grows in England but I have never seen it — not the tiniest shoot having come up from repeated sowings. (Nurseries don’t carry it: poppies of this type are notoriously difficult to transplant). I would give anything for a glimpse of it, even in somebody else’s garden. … What I can’t understand is why, if it is practically unknown in the U.S, the seeds are sold by a number of companies. Somebody, somewhere, is cultivating this elusive blue papaver. It is clear I never will.”

I took this as a challenge, a kind of Olympics of the gardening endeavour. I would grow blue poppies from seed. I ordered some from Thompson & Morgan, and failed. That was when I lived in Saskatchewan and gardened on clay soil, so it was probably just as well. After I moved to Victoria, B.C., things had changed — you could buy plants of Meconopsis betonicifolia. I acquired one and saw it bloom. It produced seeds. When I tried again with those, I got results. Spectacular results. In the summer of 2001 I had about ten plants blooming vigorously in a little bed I had fussily prepared just for them. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures, because I expected them to bloom again the following year. Ha. The fussily prepared bed was close to an Ailanthus, the Tree of Heaven. Need I say more?

From these experiences and some reading, I have learned the following about growing blue poppies: Only the freshest seeds will germinate. (I have described my method in another post). The plants are apt to die after blooming — not immediately, but unless they develop little offsets, don’t expect to see them the following spring. Even in good conditions, they are often short-lived. And they have no tolerance for tree roots.

A year or two later, I acquired another Meconopsis — a variety called ‘Lingholm,’ which apparently is a sort of botanical freak, a fertile hybrid arising from a sterile one when its chromosomes were somehow doubled. Don’t ask me any more about this, but you can find out more here. Its origins aside, ‘Lingholm’ is lovely — more vigorous than M. betonicifolia and its seeds germinate more readily. And in my experience, its colour is a purer blue than that of M. betonicifolia, which often has tints of muddy mauve.

Meconopsis 'Lingholm'

My next experiment, begun several years ago, was to grow blue poppies in pots. I produced a batch of seedlings (seeds mostly from ‘Lingholm’ but some from M. betonicifolia) and in late summer planted each one into a gallon sized or slightly smaller pot, in a nice, peaty soil mix. No tree roots, easy to maintain moisture — how could this fail?

Well, it hasn’t, but it it has not been a screaming success either. The trick is to get the plants through the winter. Their natural habitat, I understand, is alpine, with relatively dry conditions in winter (under snow). Good drainage is, of course, essential, but it appears that in pots it is hard to achieve. I keep the pots close to the house wall in winter but even so, losses are common — the plants begin to grow, then succumb to wilt and rot.

The other problem is that they are not eager to bloom in pots, at least not those of the size I have used. It’s possible that they would do better in larger containers. I did have three plants of M. betonicifolia that grew and bloomed quite happily for a couple of years in a large ceramic pot. I have plans to provide better containers for the plants (seedlings and others) I have on hand now. I am also trying to find a suitable spot for another blue poppy bed — not easy in a garden as crowded as mine.

This spring two of my pot-grown specimens bloomed. The seeds came from my purchased plant of ‘Lingholm,’ but in the case of one specimen at least, the family resemblance isn’t quite there. A distinctly pink tinge has crept into the blue. Who knows what might be going on in those chromosomes? Maybe there were genetic contributions from M. betonicifolia.  It will be interesting to see what colours other seed-grown plants might produce — yet another incentive to induce bloom, aside from the sad fact that these plants aren’t terribly interesting when not in bloom.

'Lingholm' + offspring

In addition to the children of ‘Lingholm,’ I do still have a couple of plants of M. betonicifolia descended from my original plant. (One great feature of these poppies is that if you can get them to bloom they produce seeds in abundance). They are both in pots and one obviously has plans to bloom in the next couple of weeks. So the experiment continues.

Finally, I’ll mention a Meconopsis that is utterly easy to grow. Once you have it you have it forever, without any effort at all. The effort that’s needed is to control or get rid of it, because it’s actually a sort of weed, similar to toadflax, campion and all those other tough plants. It’s Meconopsis cambrica — not blue, but a bright cheery yellow (with the occasional orange specimen). It does combine well with dark reds or purples, as here with Cotinus ‘Royal Purple.’ I have it in abundance. Too bad it isn’t blue.

Meconopsis cambrica