Grow poppies this season!

Photo by Calgary Horticultural Society

This month, many Calgarians will be sporting a red poppy on their coats as a symbol of remembrance. We don’t have fields of them here, but my mother, who spent her childhood in Europe in the 1940s, remembers seeing fields of red poppies there. We may not have fields of poppies, but gardeners in Calgary can grow beautiful poppies, and there are some impressive beds in the area.

The poppies my mother saw were likely breadseed poppies (papaver somniferum). If you like poppy seed bagels or any other food with poppy seeds, this plant is the source of the seed. Once the flowers finish blooming, a large seedhead forms. Inside the head are edible poppy seeds. If you are interested in growing poppies for seeds to use in cooking, be sure to plant papaver somniferum, as not all poppy seeds are edible. Breadseed poppies are an annual poppy and need to be sown every year.

A popular annual poppy around Calgary is the pompom poppy (Papaver paeoniflorum). I like to call the shaggy pompom variety a gift poppy.  Someone on the street plants it and the following year it is gifted to every garden. I have never sown seeds of this poppy, but it has been popping up in my yard for decades. I usually let it grow, but it’s easy to pull if it pops up in an undesirable location.

The fields of poppies that are recognized in John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” are corn poppies, also commonly known as Flanders poppies, (Papaver rhoeas). These poppies are annuals, as well. This poppy has a distinctive look that is reflected in the lapel pin flower. It has four petals. Often two of the petals form a cup around the centre of the flower while the other two petals lie flat. At the center of each red petal, next to the cluster of stamens, is a black spot. The contrast of the vivid red with the black spots and fringe of dark stamens give the blossom a striking look. The most common petal colour is red, but they can also be white, pink, salmon, yellow, and lilac.

If you want to see these poppies, some are always planted in the flower beds around the Central Memorial Library (1221 2 Street SW). The Coutts Centre for Western Canadian Heritage, located just outside of Nanton, has a wonderful bed of these poppies. They collect the seeds and have them available for sale. A couple of years ago, I was given seeds from the garden as a gift. I sprinkle them in a partial shade spot in my garden that fall and have been growing them ever since. Last year, I finally visited the Petronas Memorial Garden on the greenway by Signal Hill. I didn’t get there until August, but the poppy beds still were striking. Most of the blossoms were red, but a few pink, white, and salmon ones could be found. Next year, I will try see the flowers when they are at their peak, earlier in the summer.

While I had success planting the corn poppies from the Coutts Centre in the fall, that timing has not always worked for me. Most seed providers recommend direct sowing poppy seeds in March or early April. The seeds need a cold period to germinate. They also need light, so they should be sprinkled on the soil surface and not covered. I think leaving the seeds on the surface is one factor contributing to poor success when they are fall sown. They sit exposed waiting to be found by hungry critters—my yard hosts many birds, voles, mice, and squirrels, and all seeds are considered food by this menagerie.  

Poppy plants have taproots. Damage to this root during transplanting can cause shock and its demise. This is why sowing them directly in the garden, where you want them to grow, is recommended. This story only mentions three of the annual types of poppies available. There a many more and perennial poppies, too. Do a little online browsing and you will find a wide selection to choose from. Why not add poppies to your garden next year?

Plant a few seeds, you don’t need a field of poppies for them to be eye catching. To learn more about gardening in the Calgary area, visit our website