an easy annual poppy, papaver somniferum

I’M SAVING ANNUAL POPPY SEEDS in little brown bags, turning the intricate, preposterously shaped heads wrong-side up after the pods start to ripen, and listening as the tiny black embryos spill out, thousands of them into each paper sack. Voila! There will be poppies to share with a gardening friend who admired them this summer—and fewer to thin out when the crop self-sows in the year to come. How I grow Papaver somniferum, the breadseed poppy.

First, of course, the elephant in the flower bed: Of course we used to call them opium poppies, but then everybody worried they’d get arrested.  Breadseed sounds tamer. Remember Michael Pollan’s article in “Harper’s” about his journey with the poppy in 1997?

Today, I’m operating on the idea that growing a few poppies for their fleeting ornamental use in the garden, or to enjoy the dried seedpods in an arrangement—or to sprinkle their delicious poppyseeds into a baked good, for that matter—isn’t in any way violating anything. It’s simply gardening.

Seed catalogs sell them, and gardeners grow them.

A Washington State University factsheet on “Culinary Poppy” offers commercial growers some smart-sounding guidelines (and I quote):

‘IT IS LEGAL to grow Papaver somniferum in the United States for garden and seed production purposes; it is illegal to manufacture opium from the poppies.’


Papaver somniferum (which is an annual species) simply plant themselves in my garden, and in fact if you aren’t careful you’ll have a trail of seedlings come spring marking the path you took to the compost heap during fall cleanup. I find them easy to grow once they get started; simply thin the little blue-gray seedlings as they emerge to give the plants some elbow room.

As for that first packet from the seed catalog to get things going, there’s the question whether to sow it in later winter/earliest spring or in fall. Conventional wisdom says in colder climates like mine, sowing outdoors around March (assuming no snow cover) would be ideal, and in warmer zones, in fall.  But my poppies (well, except the ones I put in the little paper bags to save and share, above) are sowing themselves now and through the fall, as the pods dry and open and get tossed about by weather, and as I say, I’m never short on volunteers in the year to come. They must be on to something!

The key whenever you sow is to be careful cleaning up the area where the seeds were dispersed, and also this: Don’t cover the seed, but barely press it into contact with the ground. It wants light to germinate. Papaver somniferum doesn’t transplant well; direct sow it.

Some gardeners mix the tiny seeds with sand or even coffee grounds to make sowing easier, and other friends swear by buying two packets of each kind and sowing heavily to make sure they get the desired effect.

Learn how longtime grower and collector of poppies Marilyn Barlow of Select Seeds grows poppies from seed (those are some of her beauties in the 4-photo grid below).

order some seed

THINKING OF a fall or winter sowing? Order seeds now in a range of colors and flower forms, including some extravagant fringed types or peony-style doubles:

  1. LaRieta says:

    Well , today I am going to mix my last few poppy seeds ( California Poppy seeds)
    with coffee gr. and plant ..
    I remember as a child how my grand ma had many poppies. ( in Ark. )
    I’m in Texas..My earlier batch came up, but each rainy cold spell seemed to make my plants lay down and die.

  2. LaRieta says:

    Ha ha!.
    I am going to be watching for purple Poppy seeds in the stores and my neighbors gardens also…I have a purple garden ..
    Meanwhile I am going to keep on trying to find and plant any kind of annual POPPY
    that i can find.
    lol..I know I will get lucky this year,,,


  3. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    A lot of people don’t realize that even though breadseed poppies are annuals, you can deadhead them to extend their bloom. Of course, if you deadhead, you won’t get the seeds, so I usually only deadhead the first wave of bloom and then let the second flush of bloom set seed.

  4. Daniel Buckley says:

    I am wondering why all of my papver somniferum plants keep dying. . . I’m planting in Mississippi is that too hot of a climate?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Daniel. When you say “dying,” do you mean they don’t come back year to year (which they won’t as they are annuals that self-sow next year’s crop after they fade and dry)..or do you mean your young plants, the seedlings, keel over before maturing and flowering?

  5. Kim says:

    I live in mid southern NM, at just below 4800 ft elevation in zone 7b. Assuming that it is too late for fall planting, do you have any tips for a relatively newbie gardener to help with successfully growing bread poppies?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kim. I try to act like the plant if it were setting its own seed from this year’s spent flowers. Here (Zone 5B) they usually form pods that disperse the seed gradually from late summer onward, even into winter, and that seed self-sows and sprouts the next spring. So sometime between the pods ripening in my garden and the late winter, I sow poppy seeds. (You can also start indoors closer to springtime, then transplant, but the seed is very fine and a little hard to work with.)

  6. Esther says:

    must the pods be cut off and opened and reseeded or can I let the pods on the stems and let nature take care of things?

  7. TRUDY TINCHER says:

    I live in Southern MS, is it to late to plant my poppy seeds? It appears that they don’t tolerate heat.

      1. mandymarie says:

        Really, north east here and mine started sprouting mid April. Just starting bloom yesterday, about 2 weeks earlier than normal.

  8. Regina Dale says:

    I will be planting a large area of poppy seeds in the fall for next spring blooming here in zone 8a. Do you have a recommendation for companion plants/grasses that I might plant with them?

  9. Sara says:

    I got mine unintentionally from my neighbor. And they are everywhere. Along with johnny jump ups, mustard greens, and coriander. No complaints.

  10. Maureen says:

    I have all variations of opium poppies blooming all over my garden now, they are beautiful! I also have Spanish Poppies, California Poppies, and new to me this year, Iceland Poppies…I love them all! Besides self seeding, if I want them in another area, I sprinkle them on the snow where I want them in late winter, and when the snow melts it draws them down into the soil. No fuss seed starting!

  11. Amy Vegan says:

    i planted some seeds indoors and they are growing very slowly. why indoors? indoor sunroom, no critters to eat them…what should be a normal time from planting to flowering?

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