For a short but glorious time in June oriental poppies come into their own, providing flamboyant displays to enliven borders, says Carol Klein.
Most gardeners yearn for a splash of glamour, and the most flamboyant of all June's flowers has to be the oriental poppy. Even the most subtle of them are charismatic and, for the most part, they're the flashiest of flowers, flaunting their charms with bravado.
The biggest, and surely one of the best oriental poppies, is the blood-red Papaver orientale (Goliath Group) 'Beauty of Livermere' (pictured, above). This variety is similar to the wild P. orientale var. bracteatum, a plant of sun-baked Turkish slopes. Foliage appears early in the year, making neat rosettes. It is overtaken by spring plnts such as tulips, camassia, anchusa and sweet rocket. Then suddenly, without warning, the poppy thrusts up its fat buds wreathed in hairy cases until, one morning, the first case splits and the red, crumpled, papery petals tumble out, unwilling to wait a moment longer. Within hours, the bud cases have been abandoned, thrown to the ground or occasionally still hanging on to one petal before it, too, swells to take its place, its puckered surface extending almost visibly, pulled to a smooth, satiny shine.
The flower stems are strong and tall, up to 1.2m (4ft), and each supports a single magnificent bloom, blood red and boldly imprinted at the base of each petal with a jet-black splodge. The stamens, arranged in a broad circle around the dark, central knob, are topped with an abundance of dark anthers quivering with purple pollen. As fast as the flowers come, they disappear. Each lasts a few days at the most and, although an established clump may produce scores of flowers, each one makes its own statement. There may be a climax with 10 or 20 open at one time. Against a green background, the effect is retina-searing.
Though other oriental poppies can make substantial flower stems, 'Beauty of Livermere' is the colossus. We use it in our 'hot beds' at Glebe cottage, where a mix of flowers and foliage veer towards the sultry end of the spectrum - orange, red, warm yellow and lots of bronze foliage to help the whole picture seethe and simmer. The huge, blatant flowers of the poppy always get the season off to a flying start.
In a small garden, there might only be room for one clump of poppies, in which case it should be thoughtfully combined with its co-performers. At Glebe cottage, in the beds which make up Alice's Garden (Alice is our youngest daughter), the planting is predominantly white, pink and crimson, with plenty of green leaves. Tall phlox and voluminous sanguisorba take over in late summer, but in June two poppies dominate: 'Perry's White', not white at all but a soft greyish pink, and in a separate bed the glorious 'Patty's Plum'.
There are so many exciting, showy oriental poppies which bloom in early summer, but none is more glamorous than 'Patty's Plum'. It has to be the true femme fatale of the group. Her darkness and mystery are further dramatised when surrounded by the jagged, icy foliage of artichokes or the silver lace of artemisias. some people complain about the way in which the colour fades from her deliciously damsony petals and becomes tinged with brown, just before they fall. Who cares how disgracefully she dies, when she lives so exuberantly?
Oriental poppies love the sun and although they will tolerate most conditions, they will not thrive in sodden soils - decent drainage is essential. As with any other plant, get them off to a good start by incorporating plenty of organic material, of which the best source is home-made compost. Oriental poppies will appreciate a small amount of organic fertiliser, but don't like being overfed, especially with nitrogen-rich fertiliser, because this will result in excessive leafy growth at the expense of flower production.
Once finished, poppies can looked a mess and their untidy departure is often cause for complaint, but I don't know what all the fuss is about. Shearing the whole clump back to ground level will rejuvenate it and, though it seems brutal, will allow the plant a fresh start. Once again there will be neat rosettes and, with luck, a few more flowers in late summer.