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I love poppies!

Poppies at sunset

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

As I wrote last week, I retire on October 1 after 30 years with University of Illinois Extension and am focusing my last couple columns on my favorite plants. Although I love many flowers, the poppy is probably my favorite. I am not sure why, but I have a fascination with poppies. I collect antique Hall China in the orange poppy pattern and have my kitchen decorated in poppies.

There are many different types of poppies. One source lists 39 different species alone. Most people grow either the perennial Oriental poppy or one of the many annual-type poppies.

The Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) is the largest and most eye-catching of the poppies. It grows 18-36 inches tall and blooms in early summer. The single flowers are orange, scarlet, pink, or white blooms with dark centers. There are many different varieties available including 'Pizzicato' that produces up to 20 huge flowers per plant and the dwarf scarlet one called "Dwarf Allegro'.

The foliage of Oriental poppy dies after flowering and leaves open spaces in the garden for the rest of the season. Use other plants around the poppy to conceal the dying foliage or vacant space. I've had good success using Baby's Breath (Gypsophila paniculata) and hibiscus. Remember that poppies do best if left undisturbed so it can reseed itself. The Oriental poppy can be started by dividing old clumps or by sowing seed. Plants will not bloom until the 2nd year.

The annual-type poppies are usually grown as annuals here, although some are short-lived perennials. Regardless, we usually reseed or replant these each year. These poppies have a much longer bloom time than Oriental poppies. The foliage does not die back and we get flowers each year.

The corn or field poppy is a red flowering annual (Papaver rhoeas). Like most poppies, it does best in areas with cooler summers. In our hot summer climate, light afternoon shade is often needed for best success. If established, it is a vigorous self-seeding annual that is invasive in some areas. A good cultivar to try it 'Angels Choir.' It grows 18 to 24 inches tall with old-rose colors of pinks, whites, and reds.

This red poppy is represented in the American Legion Auxiliary's Poppy Program. Their remembrancered poppy is an artificialflowerthat has been used since 1921 to commemorate military personnel who have died in war. According to their website, "From the battlefields of World War I, weary soldiers brought home the memory of a barren landscape transformed by wild poppies, red as the blood that had soaked the soil." "By that miracle of nature, the spirit of their lost comrades lived on." "The poppy became a symbol of the sacrifice of lives in war and represented the hope that none had died in vain."

The poppy's beautiful symbolism, bright colors, and silky feel make it one of my favorites.


As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.