Life Gardens

Saturday 17 March 2018

Sun-loving poppies add a splash of blue

Blue poppy
Blue poppy

Gerry Daly

When blue-flowered poppies first arrived in Europe from Tibet and China, they caused a great stir because poppies were known only as red or yellow flowers until then. There was the red field poppy and the yellow Welsh poppy and the vivid blue of these new flowers was a revelation. And, being so beautiful, and a bit tricky to grow, they still hold a position of glamour.

There are several related species of Himalayan blue poppy which have been hybridised. The largest flowers can be up to 15cm across on flower stems of about one metre or a little more. The flowers are of a brilliant pure blue, though some shade slightly towards purple. Generally they have four petals but the first flower on the stem can have more petals and is usually the largest also. The hybrids have greater vigour than the parent species and tend to be more long-lived.

'Slieve Donard' is an Irish variety and popular as a result. It is also a very beautiful variety, a strong grower and carries a profusion of deep blue flowers. 'Branklyn' is another good variety with very large flowers. The flowers of this and most kinds normally droop a little, the flower nodding outward in a very elegant way.

Blue poppies need a relatively cool climate and do really well in Scotland and Ireland, especially in the damper areas. They like moist but well-drained soil, never wet, but not inclined to dry out in summer either. If the climate or the soil is too dry, the plants tend to flower, set seeds and die off.

But if the conditions are right, the plants tend to be more perennial and last longer. Even so the plants need to be lifted and carefully divided every three years to maintain their vigour, otherwise they tend to wither away. The soil should contain generous quantities of humus to retain moisture while permitting good aeration of the roots. Plenty of well-rotted leaf-mould or good compost also helps to acidify the soil and these plants like the soil to be neutral or slightly acidic.

The blue poppies like some sunshine for part of the day, rather than being lightly shaded all the time. They like shelter which reduces drying out, and the sumptuous flowers on tall stems may need protection against the worst of the weather. A single plant looks good but they are best seen as a group, or drift of plants. Place them where they can be seen from a distance, or when turning a corner of a bed or flower border.

Plants are available, usually in flower, and they can be grown from seeds, collected or purchased. Best results are achieved by giving the seeds a cold period, by keeping them in a fridge for a couple of months before sowing in spring.

Q I have a variegated holly with a black scum on its leaves. The holly is 4ft tall and doing well but should I be worried?" I Ryan, Co Tipperary

A This sounds like sooty mould that grows on the exudate of greenflies. Apparently greenflies cannot digest some sugars and these are excreted. The fungus sooty mould grows on the sticky layer. The greenflies or scale insects, which are similar sap-suckers, will eventually be controlled by their natural enemies and the tree will grow out of it.

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