Mountain Gardening

The heirloom variety of Oriental poppies spread its roots out and blooms giant, velvety blossoms year after year.

Oriental poppies are certainly one of the most glorious of garden flowers. When the large crepe-papery flowers open, they never fail to attract attention. Enjoy them while you can; they won’t last long.

Interestingly, care for these beauties means allowing them to die back to the ground in midsummer. You see, Oriental poppies are supposed to go dormant after flowering. Their hairy leaves turn yellow and eventually go crispy brown.

It pays to remember that this decline is part of the plants’ natural cycle and to just let them be. You might think you need to revive them by watering them a lot, but all that water and more water and more water might actually do them in.

That above-ground dieback and dormancy is a survival trick from their origins in Iran, where the mountains are hot and dry in the summer. Wouldn’t that be something to see them in full bloom in their natural habitat? I’m imagining big, brilliant splashes of orange incongruently coloring the drab hillsides.

Most of the Oriental poppies for sale today in plant centers and nurseries are hybrids. Those gorgeous shades of pink, red, purple and white are a cross between varieties. You may have noticed that even though the plants produce lots of small seeds in big round pods that scatter to the ground, there are seldom any resulting volunteer plants. That’s because most hybrid seed is sterile.

But if you come across a large, dense, wide bed of orange poppies blooming near an old building or house then you have most likely discovered a heritage poppy. Instead of staying put like many of the newer hybrid poppies, these antiques spread relatively quickly via underground stolons that root as they creep along.

This old fashioned poppy — most likely of an unknown name — would be hard to find on the market. You will have to make the acquaintance of the gardeners and hope they’ll share a division with you.

I found just such a patch growing in front of Nelson Engineering’s office, where my hubby Mike worked some years ago. I dug up some big clumps to take home and plant in my yard, and they’ve grown there for decades now.

Surprisingly, those root divisions did much better than any of the nursery stock I have purchased in the past. I have found that to be true of many of the old-timey plants: They are tough characters for sure.

The process of dividing Oriental poppies isn’t all that hard, but you will have to dig deeply and keep the soil around the roots as intact as possible. Oriental poppies can be divided in early spring or in late summer, when the plants begin to send up new shoots after the dormant period.

Gardening guru Marilyn Quinn shares her green thumb knowledge weekly in the summer. Contact her by emailing columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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