If there’s one indelible image of poppies, it’s the scene in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy is felled by the sleep inducers. The field of red poppies with the Emerald City in the background is absolutely breathtaking, but your heart sinks as the girl in the red ruby slippers falls to the ground. When Glinda awakens the Cowardly Lion and Dorothy with a sudden snowstorm, the poppies are nothing but a memory as the motley group races toward the city.

Field poppies

Field poppies are a beautiful spring annual for the garden.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Shirley poppy

Shirley poppies are double-flowered selections of the field poppy, often with bicolored flowers.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Of course, no one’s going to fall asleep while running through a gorgeous field of poppies in real life, but you might be inclined to stop to take in the beauty – a large group of poppies demands to be noticed! Widely distributed throughout Europe, field poppies grow about 2 feet tall and are topped with delicate, crepe-textured flowers 3-4 inches across. The blooms are held singly aloft on long, thin stems covered with short hairs. (The stems exude a milky sap when cut.) The leaves are deeply cut and mostly in a basal rosette or scattered up the branched stem to about half the height of the plant.

Before opening, the solitary, olive-sized buds nod downward as they await their day in the sun. Flowers consist of two hairy sepals that fall away as the flowers open. Most field poppies have four petals, though double forms are available, too. And you can find a variety of colors. (There are more than 20 botanical varieties of the species.) The most common hue is a cheery bright red.

The field poppy has escaped cultivation in North America, but it doesn’t seem to be a serious weed anywhere. In fact, it’s often used as a part of a wildflower mix for highway plantings, where it blooms well the first year, has scattered blooms the second and then usually disappears by the third. Poppies are more likely to establish themselves by reseeding in gardens with more open ground and less mowing before seed capsules have an opportunity to mature

These tall beauties are best in sunny sites with well-drained soils having a pH of 6.5-7.0. In Northern climates, poppies are often seeded in spring, with blooms following in late spring or early summer. (Amazingly, these beauties can even be seeded on top of snow!) To plant in warmer climates, broadcast seed in fall where you want the flowers to grow. (Poppies transplant poorly, so they should be sown directly in the soil.)

To extend the period of bloom in a given area, plan for multiple seedings at intervals throughout early spring and early summer (or during late fall and winter). Seed should be broadcast at a rate of a half-ounce of seed per 1,000 square feet, or alternatively 2 pounds per acre. Because the seeds are tiny – over 3,100,000 per pound – mix them with a small quantity of sand for uniform distribution.

While not everyone’s a fan of The Wizard of Oz (flying monkeys can be a bit unnerving), you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who’s not lured in by the loveliness of poppies. Easy-to-grow and a wonderful match with just about any wildflower, these vibrant beauties are a real winner in the world of annuals!