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Gardening in France: Oriental poppies go centre stage in springtime

Why Papavers in your French garden are not just the support act to other blooms and how they should be shown off

1 May 2021
Alluring and delicate poppies should be celebrate in any garden border
By Cathy Thompson

It can be hard always to play a supporting role. The actors are often every bit as attractive – and more characterful – than those taking the leads, but they are mostly there to show them off.

So here is a shout-out for oriental poppies, flowering at the same time as the first roses and the wealth of exotic irises that will crowd our borders shortly.

We have a tendency to see the poppies as simple ‘add-ons’ in the May border, but that’s an insult

Not only are they just as alluring, with their delicate, paper-thin flowers that last way more than a day, but they can be much, much tougher than any special rose you’d cherish.

I remember seeing a house where oriental poppies were naturalised in long grass on the road verge. Each flower was either a flamboyant orange or red and the backdrop of shocking spring green was an inspired way to show them off.

I slowed down (at the risk of being tail-ended) every time I drove by. And, since the poppy foliage had died down in late June, there was no way they would be damaged by strimming the grass verge.

Easy to grow from seed, you can even arrive at the colour of the parent, providing you are not growing a mixture together. In this case, since the predominant Papaver orientale gene is orange or red, those are the colours you are likely to get. However, if colours are growing separately, go for it. I sowed seed of pale pink ‘Karine’ a few years back and each seedling has come true.

I start them off without any heat at all: in seed trays in a cold greenhouse in autumn, then pricking out the following spring when they were large enough to handle. Take care to make your compost good and gritty and not to overwater: these plants hate excessive moisture.

Another easy way of propagating is by root cuttings when the plants have gone fully dormant in summer. Dig down one side of your clump and cut off pencil- thickness sections of root, further dividing them into 2.5cm lengths; push these vertically into a pot or seed tray filled with a gritty potting compost, top end level with the compost surface. Cover with a thin layer of grit and keep them only just moist until they shoot in the autumn.

Oriental poppies
Oriental poppy in full bloom

Oriental poppies also make excellent cut flowers, much longer-lasting than you would imagine. Just be sure to cut them first thing in the morning, before the buds have opened properly. Apparently removing the green calyx helps to extend their vase life.

If you are thinking vases, there are some delicious colourways around. As well as ‘Karine’, there’s delicate pinkywhite ‘Maiden’s Blush’ if you are going pastel, but ‘Patty’s Plum’ is the most obvious departure from the norm – the luscious faded grey-violet is more reminiscent of an opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) than the oriental’s normal fiery flamenco performance.

‘Beauty of Livermore’ is the best red I know, with dark black patches at the base of each petal, but you could try seed of the strain ‘Brilliant’ if you are looking for that bloody effect en masse, for half the cost of a few plants of the ‘Beauty’.

Scientists astonish us... sometimes they even frighten us with what they can do. Intergeneric hybrids are a case in point. But at least with the newly available Mangave we are not talking about crossing a cow with a sheep – rather these are plants whose parents are Agaves crossed with Manfreda.

Most lovers of succulents in the home and garden will be familiar with Agaves. As long as you are careful of their often brutal leaf tips and serrated edges, there is no more architectural plant to grow in a dry, hot garden that experiences little or no frost. And, if you are a real succulent aficionado, you will also have made the acquaintance of Manfreda, which are as tolerant of poor soils and arid conditions as their relatives, the Agaves, but grow much faster and have fascinating patterns on their foliage.

In producing a hybrid, breeders have pulled the proverbial rabbit, for here are architectural plants that grow quickly, are as tolerant of normal northern rainfall as severe drought – and have far fewer murderous prickles and saw-like leaf edges to attack you when you are repotting, planting, or just wandering dreamily of an evening.

This year in France the Jard’inov distinguished Dutch plant importer/ exporter Javado with a trophy for its new range of Mangaves, sourced in the US.

The master stroke is that Mangaves are frequently hardier than their parents, with a few cultivars tolerating a drop in temperature down to -6°C (some say -12°C). Look out for ‘Lavender Lady’, ‘Mission to Mars’, ‘Moonglow’ and ‘Pineapple Express’. I am definitely going to be trying them!

Hurrah – finally someone has thought of it! Garden centre chain ‘Botanic’ has introduced a plastic pot recycling service. You can take your unwanted polypropylene pots (those marked with the symbol 5-PP, denoting that they are made of food-safe plastic) to 70 shops and they recycle them into small plastic granules, which are then used to manufacture more plastic pots.

Unfortunately, when I check the placement of most ‘Botanic’ outlets, I see that they are largely located in the north, east and south-east of France, so hard luck if you are in the south-west But perhaps worth an annual pilgrimage?

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