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Margaret Lauterbach: Poppy varieties proliferate, and there are legal issues

Winter is approaching, so it’s time to think about what you’d like in next year’s gardens.

Some flowers to consider are poppies, since most species grow easily in our soil and climate. One that does not grow easily here and is a problem in most parts of the country is the blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia. It’s native to southeastern Tibet, and requires a cool, sheltered situation to thrive. Our summers aren’t cool.

But Oriental, Shirley or cornfield, Iceland, and other types of poppies are easily grown here. Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) are perennials, large blowsy blossoms in early summer, and then going dormant for the rest of the summer, reviving with lush foliage for autumn. The usual color of blossoms is orange, but there are varieties that bloom pink or white, too.

Flanders (cornfield) poppies (Papaver rhoeas) are self-sowing annuals, blossoms about the size of the red paper poppies sold at Memorial Day to support veterans, originally commemorating World War I. A subgroup of these poppies is the Shirley poppy, discovered and bred by the vicar of the English parish of Shirley.

I hadn’t seen or thought of growing Shirley poppies until a friend sent me seeds and suggested I sow them on late patches of snow. The ephemeral blossoms are heartbreakingly beautiful and fragile, some with different colored edges (picotee). They bloom in white, pale lilac, pink and red, and variations of those colors. They self-seed readily.

Even more spectacular lush blossoms are borne by P. paeoniflorum, or peony poppies. The closely related breadseed poppy tends to have single blossoms of red, pink or lavender petals, with a dark Maltese cross surrounding the center of the blossoms. Peony poppies and breadseed poppies are subgroups of Papaver somniferum, or opium poppy.

It is legal to sell seeds or plants of P. somniferum, but technically it’s illegal to grow them. Drug agents can rip plants out of your garden, but they seldom do that. I heard years ago they did just that to a woman’s flower bed in central Idaho, although the drug agents misidentified the plants. They tore out Oriental poppies, there weren’t any opium poppies there. Seeds of breadseed poppies are used in salad dressings too (my favorite), and I’ve heard that folks favoring food that includes those seeds cannot pass drug tests, so beware if you’re applying for a job.

Opium poppies have lettuce-like leaves clasping flower stems, but other species have fernlike leaves that link petioles (stems) to stalks. Most poppies have seed pods like salt shakers, although in some varieties such as Oriental poppies, the seeds won’t produce true copies of the parent. Those are replicated by root cuttings.

Most varieties of poppy dislike being transplanted, but with close attention, you can make it work. California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are especially averse to transplanting, but I’ve done it, watching plants for signs of wilting, then covering them until evening.

That went on for several days before the plants settled in and stopped wilting in direct sun. This variety should be regularly deadheaded or else they’ll go to seed and the foliage becomes strawlike and unattractive. They do naturalize easily, though. It’s easiest to plant from seed.

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At this time of year we often accidentally reach into a large spider web in the garden, and catch a fleeting glimpse of the weaver. She or he is a black-and-yellow (or orange) Argiope, escaping and hiding after the intrusion. They’re not new to the garden, but the smaller or younger Argiopes are not as noticeable as they are when full-grown. Although many of us are tempted to invent new steps to the herky-jerky when hitting such a web, these spiders are your helpers. They’ll even catch and consume large grasshoppers.

Their webs are beautiful, usually finished or stabilized with a pattern resembling a zipper, leading some to call them “zipper spiders.”

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A reader asked how low one should cut back perennial stalks for winter. We leave stalks topped with seeds for birds instead of cutting them back. Do you cut back those stalks, and if so, how close to the ground do you cut?

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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