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Papaver nudicaule: Iceland Poppies

Carol Younger

Carol Younger

Sherman Library & Gardens Senior Horticulturist

Papaver nudicaule is the Latin name for the Iceland poppy. The Latin genus Papaver means ‘poppy’ while the Latin specific epithet nudicaule means ‘with bare stems.’ Other common names include Icelandic poppy and arctic poppy. These plants are native to Asian mountain areas north into arctic regions.

Iceland poppies are technically considered a perennial but are grown here in southern California as annuals. They are best planted in the fall months into early spring. Poppy plants grow optimally in an evenly moist, well-drained soil with regular fertilization. Along the coast they thrive in a full sun exposure.

Each plant features a blue-green clump of pinnately lobed basal leaves from which rise slender, leafless flower stems. The wrinkled flower bud outer covering is composed of two intensely hairy sepals (modified leaves), which protect the tissue paper thin petals as they grow. As the flower buds crack open the mesmerizing blooms of various shades of yellow, pink, orange, salmon, cream, rose, and white unfurl. These solitary, saucer-shaped, crinkled petal flowers are fragrant as well.

While walking home from my elementary school in Whittier, each day I passed a garden nursery. The nursery planted Iceland poppies each year and the buds and flowers ‘talked’ to me as I walked by. The bees were just as fascinated by the blooms as I was as they danced among the blossoms. The flowers seemed so beautiful and fragile like they were made of crinkled, colorful crepe paper. This experience grew me to my career of horticulture.

The blooms make great cut flowers. The best stage to harvest Iceland poppy blooms is when the buds are just starting to crack open, and the tiniest sliver of color can be seen. This is called cracking bud stage. Iceland poppies have a surprisingly long vase life, up to a week if picked at the proper stage and treated. Shortly after harvest, use an open flame or boiling water to sear the stem ends for seven to ten seconds and place the blooms into water. Removing the spent flowers is critical for new flower formation, daily deadheading is encouraged.

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This variety ‘Colibri’ that we planted has HUGE flowers!
At Sherman Library & Gardens we had the opportunity to trial a variety of Iceland poppies used in the cut-flower market trade available from an Italian seed grower company. It was reported that this variety ‘Colibri’ had HUGE flowers, two-foot-tall stems and was double the size of the variety ‘Champagne Bubbles’ that we normally plant.