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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.’

Exactly.

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. Marilyn Loscombe says:

    I have a question about root growth and the size.I planted a lialac bush near my back door about 6ft.away. My landloard says I must move it because the root will grow down and grow around the sewer lines.They had this happen with some very large trees before.Will they grow that deep and that long?Please give me your opinion.Thank you so much.I love flowers.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Marilyn. The root system of a common lilac can get big, but not as big as that of a large tree, of course. Six feet seems like good clearance to me for this kind of shrub.

  2. BentNeedle says:

    So poppy seeds should be planted in fall? That had never occurred to me…I always think of bulbs in fall, seeds in spring. Maybe I should try it, since I’ve never been successful with starting poppies.

  3. Marilyn Wilkie says:

    Last year I had a few nice Bombast poppy plants which I actually started under lights. This year I saw a few plants come up and din’t think much of it. Later they actually took over three areas of my garden. Huge 5 foot plants with many 5 inch peony like blooms. They were beautiful but shoved some of the perennials aside and even smothered some plants. Next spring I will not be so kind. When the blooms faded they became very dry and ugly. Surprisingly enough, over the past two weeks I have been cutting the seed heads as the little holes have opened under the crowns on the seed heads. I ended up with 3 gallon ziplocs full of them. Just today I began cutting the crowns off in order to extract all of the seeds so that I can share them with friends on my garden forum. I ended up with many, many seeds.

  4. Marc says:

    Hi, I planted some poppies in my yard, but they don’t seem to be bloming anytime soon. They now have this new type of growth happining on there tips, however I’m not sure if this is just bud formation or something else. I planted them from seed I bought at the grocerie store is that the proplem, or should I just give them more time?
    Thank you!

  5. narf7 says:

    Tasmania grows a lot of these as a crop thanks to its remote locality and easily controlled conditions. We are NOT allowed to have them in our gardens but its hilarious as inspectors check gardens and completely ignore the wild poppies springing up like mushrooms all over the road verges…Now that we live out in the sticks I might have to get myself some this year and strew them all over Serendipity Farm for their lovely blooms and that feeling that I am being a little bit naughty ;)

    1. margaret says:

      That is very funny, Narf7. Sort of like the inspectors can’t see the forest for the trees!

      Hi, Marc. When they first form their flower buds at the tops of the stems, they are large but droopy — funny shaped, and nodding downward, like they can’t support themselves. And then they crack open and the buds straighten up and the flower is held in a normal upright position. I don’t know what yours look like (nor whether the seed in the grocery is treated with preservative or growth retardant of any kind).

  6. Patricia says:

    When I was a young girl, I remember my mother saving the poppy seed pods. She would let me break the tiny, pointy ends off and shake out the little seeds like pepper from a pepper shaker. We would then plant them and share with neighbors. I have tried to grow poppies in my garden, but I always have bought the pre-potted ones, and they never survive. I will have to try to find a neighbor who grows them and ask for seeds.
    Funny you should mention the term ‘opium poppy’. My grandfather told me that in the ‘old country’ they would steep poppy seeds in hot milk and give it to children who had trouble sleeping. I don’t know how much truth there is in that, but it is a bit scary to think about.
    My mother grew the bright orange poppies from seeds my father’s mother brought with her from oversees. I still have some bearded iris that came from Lithuania with my grandmother, but alas the poppies died out in mother’s yard before I could rescue any or grab any seeds. Such beautiful memories.

  7. gayle says:

    Margaret – I admired a hillside of poppies this past spring – they were bright red and just fantastic – I actually changed my driving route just so I could pass them on a daily basis.

    But, I’m not sure what type of poppy they were ….. are there also perennial poppies?

    Growing up I think we had bright orange poppies and I thought they were a perennial plant – but could it have been that they were just reseeded?

    I love your blog – really well written and so informative – thank you!!!
    gayle

  8. Dahlink says:

    Last summer we visited old friends who have retired to an island in Scotland. They have a gorgeous garden, and when I admired the poppies Helen offered me a few pods. Her husband said “Um, you might want to rethink that when you go through airport security.” Sure enough, I got into trouble when we arrived home because I had forgotten an apple in my carry-on bag. I was busted by a plant-sniffing dog. I was just grateful they didn’t catch me with poppy heads!

  9. harlinah says:

    Both the flowers and the seedpods are gorgeous. I’ve admired these in my friend’s garden here in Melbourne; this has inspired me to track down some seeds this year.

  10. Patricia says:

    Marilyn, could I please have some seeds. I may have something that I can give you, too. These sound like the kind of poppies that grew in my mother’s garden; they were huge and beautiful like big orange paper flowers.

  11. Hello Margaret: We spent yesterday pulling poppies out of our veggie garden after cutting off the seed pods. They self-sow very prolifically and add lots of color! This year I even tried them as a cover-crop! I let them get 4-6″ tall, very lush and full then chopped them into the soil with a hoe! It worked really well as we have so much seed!. Our favorite is ‘Lauren’s Grape’, a dark purple single found by Lauren Springer I believe. If you don’t have it I’d love to swap you for the lilac variety in your gorgeous photo! I’ll have open flowers of LG in a couple of days and I’ll send you a pic.

  12. Linda says:

    Margaret….what is the name of the pretty purple poppy you show in your photo?
    Can you tell me the source? Thanks for your fun and wonderful site.
    Linda

  13. martha says:

    I remember in my childhood large areas of big red poppies around several large pecan trees. Memories of sunlight and wind blowing, ruffling them, making a sparkling sea of color.. But at some time in the late 1950s poppies became frowned upon and my parents carefully removed them, the rattle-wonderful seed pods and digging out the roots. I wailed with big tears, begging them not to “murder the poppies.” Many years later I’ve tried purchased roots as well as seeds to replant those lovely areas, to no avail. But your info and reader comments have renewed my interest. Will do as you say this fall. Thank you!

  14. Marilyn Wilkie says:

    Patricia,
    I collected 2 1/2 ounces of seeds from my Bombast poppies and am happy to share them with anyone who wants them for ornamental use. When I bought the original plants they guaranteed at least 100 seeds in the little envelope. LOL wipaulmar@aol.com

  15. Matt Mattus says:

    Margaret, I’ve had P. somniferum self seed, but I’m not sure if P. rhoeas will, or my Shirley Poppies ( in NY or New England) – any idea? I’ve cut my plants out, since I want pure strains, assuming that the Shirley poppies will revert back to their red parents, but maybe a few seeds escaped – I’ll have to wait until spring to see if these might emerge.

  16. Jan says:

    I collected two types of poppy seeds. One was from a large pod and one is from a much smaller pod. Are all poppy seeds edible? How do I tell if not.

    1. margaret says:

      Were they the same kind of flowers/kinds of plants or two different species? Often you will get very small to pretty large pods on the same crop of breadseed poppy flwoers because some come up in shadier spots or get crowded and don’t grow as big as others. But do you mean like Oriental poppy and California poppy or all breadseed/opium poppy?

  17. Patricia says:

    Marilyn, I received my poppy seeds yesterday in the mail. Thank you so much. I did not expect so many, so I will be sure to share with neighbors. I will plant some now and some in March. I think my mother used to wait until March. I will have some penstemen seeds if you would like some. I collect seeds in the fall when the flowers have stopped blooming; they are in bloom now. They readily reseed and are easy to recognize and pull up if they seed where you don’t want them. Mine seem to reseed pretty much where they were planted. Again, thank you.

  18. Marnie says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I second Linda’s question: what is the pretty purple poppy in your pictures? Thank you for another wonderful article!
    —Marnie

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Marnie — and Linda, sorry to miss your question. The poppy is a seedling strain of the variable annual called Papaver somniferum that I have grown for years — it is not a named variety, but I have just given seed to Hudson Valley Seed Library so I expect they will eventually offer it in their catalog.

  19. gayle says:

    I’m giddy!! After seeing your picture of the seed heads from your poppies I drove by the spot where the beautiful red poppies had been this past spring. They were all along this burm right next to the road.

    I got out and walked along the burm which is now thick with weeds and started to see some poppy seed heads!!! A lot of the plants had already been knocked down and were twisted into the weeds – but I got a handfull of stalks. I put them in my trunk on a white towel I happened to have – and all these little tiny seeds started pouring out!!

    When I got home I cut all the seed heads off and put them in a plastic container and started shaking!! I am SO excited – I have a lot of seeds!!!!

    Now…. to sow them this fall or wait till spring ….. oye!!!

    So thank you Margaret for this wonderful blog, and the beautiful pictures that you post!! Thanks to you – I too will (hopefully) have beautiful poppies next spring!!

    Thanks – gayle

  20. Peggy Gould says:

    Hi Margaret!
    I’m just clearing out the last of my vegetable garden, which included some marigolds that were absolutely stunning before we had that frost earlier in October. I’m noticing that the closed up flowers seem to have seeds in them, and wondering if (and how) I can save the seeds for next year.
    Much appreciation for all that you do – I’m a huge fan of the podcast and website,
    PG

  21. olive says:

    We have started a “poppy bombing” project here where we scatter seed all over town where ever there is a bare patch of soil.(Ala Mrs. Rumphious) I have had no problem whatsoever getting bulk organic breadseed poppies from the health food stores to germinate.With the weather as bizarre as it’s been in my own garden I always sow in the fall and then again in early spring for good measure.

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