hotp(l)ants: the brightest spring poppy

IT’S ALWAYS NICE to feel ahead of the curve. For probably fifteen years, I have been growing a springtime ephemeral (simply meaning it disappears back underground after its early display) that’s suddenly getting “discovered.” Hylomecon japonicum, a member of the poppy family or Papavaraceae, blooms with other extra-early things like primulas and trilliums, adding its buttercup-like golden flowers in gaudy profusion to the floor of the shade garden.

I got my plant at a sale at the New England Wildflower Society all those years ago. Their specialty is American natives, of course, but they also sell (or used to sell) some select Asian things; Hylomecon is from Japan.

For years I had just the one plant, which a friend who was helping in the garden about six years ago dug up and divided when I was not looking. Coming upon him with the tiny pieces in his hands, I started to shout, and then cry. My precious little plant would not survive such treatment, I feared—and where would I ever find another, since it was not in catalogs? He yelled back, then tucked each of the bits in a hole of its own as if to say, “You’ll see.”

The next spring I had dozens (and now, following his example again and again, I have hundreds). These days you can buy this treasure from time to time by mail, usually from Arrowhead Alpines, for instance. Remember, one yields plenty, if you have a little patience, and then fearlessness (or a fearless friend)—and a sharp knife.

March 21, 2008


  1. ayo says

    I raked away what was, frankly, just a pile of leaves under hemlocks and birches, and a week later found that mayflowers (Maianthemum canadense)had completely carpeted the ground! Thank you for inspiring me –I’ve been wondering about underplanting after these spring ephemerals fade–your great ideas and photos will help a lot! I love the idea of a “mosaic”—a good word to describe that lovely effect of lush underplanting. I am curious whether you’ve visited Project Native in Housatonic? I have had good luck with both Bunchberry (cornus canadensis) and Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) for groundcovers as well. They take a couple of seasons to establish, but are really beautiful native plants. I am a little too much of a control freak for an all-native garden–but for weekend gardeners like me, they are easy and hardy and non-invasive.

  2. Terryk says

    Hi Margaret, I know this is an old article on the blog but can you tell me when you divided the plants? Was it after they flowered or just as they emerged. I have three fromEverymay Nursery and now they are sold out. I can’t get celedine poppy plants either and thought I would pair this with some Virginia bluebells instead.

  3. Louise Oppedahl says

    Hey Margaret, do the leaves turn reddish as summer cools down and they stop flowering? I have yellow flowering plants that someone called Evening Primrose, but they look a lot like your picture.

    • says

      No, they don’t. Look up Oenothera (for the evening primrose) perhaps in a Google image search and see if it looks familiar. There are various species. The foliage is quite different from my Hylomecon.

  4. cintra says

    I lost a number of big oaks due to storms in my area…New Jersey……and feel overwhelmed by how to make my small yard an environment again….. any cheerleading would be great!!

  5. Gayle Klouda says

    Love love love the mosaic concept. I have an area of established white pines with nothing but pine needles under!! Perfect. It is also along the front drive so will be very much viewed and appreciated. Thank you for the inspiration! But I do have a question as well. What fills in the blanks when the ephemerals fade?

    • margaret says

      The bigger-leaved plants I have in the foreground or nearby mostly do, awakening later and stretching out and up more in May than April, though there are some blank spots in places.

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