Meconopsis magic

The Himalayan Blue Poppy, Meconopsis, has a special place in my gardening affections.

In years past I sometimes bought them at the garden centre. Alive, vigorous and ready to flower at the time of purchase, in the autumn they would disappear into the ground, never to return. In retrospect I think they were planted in thin soil and prone to dry out in summer.

Then a couple of years back, I made progress and got a small clump established in a shadier spot. I began to take real pleasure in their unfolding buds, their varied blues and their drooping aspect. Now, to quote Beth Chatto, with some of the right plants in the the right place, I became more ambitious about growing them.

In the autumn of 2019, the plants set seed for the first time. With the poppy heads nice and ripe, and in the nick of time as a visiting deer started to nip them off for a tasty snack, I collected a paper bagful. I then cracked out the fine, shining black seed before storing it carefully in a labelled envelope.

In March 2020 I filled several trays with scattered seed on damp compost and then sprinkled fine grit over the top. Having no greenhouse at that time, I left the trays on a low wall where they would attract some sunshine, but not dry out.

By May I had a patchy but gratifying array of seedlings. By July I was re-planting into four-inch pots. Some grew faster than others. Some poorer specimens struggled and died. 

But by mid August, when a sense of early autumn pervades the morning air in these parts, I felt confident that my modest stash could be planted out in the ground. There they sat for a few months, in their new location near a rill that runs from the burn into the pond. In dappled sun and unequivocally damp.

Over Winter they slumbered beneath the leaf mould. Returning hesitantly in March 2021, they were un-phased by the frosts of the late Spring. If they took a knock in the early hours when the April chill descended, they were soon back in business and giving me hope of a return on my efforts.

In May 2021, to my delight, I got my first two flowers, seen here, their blooms not quite fully unfolded but looking majestic in a porcelain deep blue. I felt ridiculously pleased about it. 

That year I repeated the process, with good results.

Then in autumn 2022, I varied my method and did as experts suggest – sowing the seed immediately – ‘just like in nature’. At first, things looked promising, with good germination. By the shorter days of November I had several trays of healthy seedlings. But then came the terrible frosts of December last year. I entered the greenhouse one morning to find my seedlings turning grey and looking beyond rehabilitation.

Over the Winter I left the trays where they were, and waited for Spring. Slowly, some new seedlings have emerged, but I will be lucky to have 10 plants in total, whereas last autumn I was hoping for far more. Such is gardening. I’ll try to nurture them along and plant them out at the end of this summer.

Even with hit and miss results, growing from gathered seed is a lot less costly option than buying-in Meconopsis plants year on year – and much more satisfying!

I’ve read that the blue poppy was first cultivated by the French botanist Viguier in 1814. I also understand that the Meconopsis has many named varieties and that these are often shrouded in debate as to provenance. Some do not set seed at all and have to be multiplied by plant division. Informally, I have named my home-grown friends Meconopsis Pennylandis, after the lovely Dumfriesshire burn that runs past them.

An earlier version of this piece first appeared in Garden Musings on 16 May 2021

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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