Saturday, 25 February 2017

dreams of blue poppies

I went to the monthly Suffolk Plant Heritage meeting this afternoon.  The lecture was by Christopher Grey-Wilson, former senior Kew botanist, plant hunter, authority on alpines, cyclamen guru, and expert extraordinaire.  He was talking on the subject of blue poppies, which don't really grow awfully well in East Anglia, but it doesn't hurt to dream of things you aren't going to do yourself.  After all, I enjoy the art documentaries on BBC4 despite the fact that I am never going to own a Rembrandt or a Rothko.

Christopher Grey-Wilson assured us that we could grow a few species of Meconopsis even in the dry flatlands, but since his suggested method involved half barrels filled with leaf mould over a base layer of manure I thought I probably wouldn't try.  I don't really have a sheltered, semi-shaded spot within easy reach of a tap where I could stand the half barrel, assuming that I had a half barrel, which I haven't.  I could always get one, or make do with the old log basket that's been sitting in the garage since the bottom fell out, in case it came in useful as a planter lined with an old compost bag turned black side out.  But I could not conjure up the damp air they would prefer. Blue poppies, and the white and yellow and purple and red flowered species of Meconopsis, are children of the monsoon.  They would like a great deal of rain between May and June, and to be shrouded in mist.  They are not going to feel at home in the Clacton coastal strip, the driest bit of land in England.

They all come from north Asia, the great mountainous sweep of Tibet, the western reaches of China, Bhutan, the far north of India and northern Myanmar.  The species from really high altitudes, eighteen or twenty thousand feet, are almost impossible to grow in the UK even for the experts at Kew.  Some species from lower altitudes and relatively low rainfall areas will grow beautifully in Scottish and Irish gardens and the Lake District.  I have seen blue poppies growing in an Essex garden, and their owner was very proud of them, but they did not honestly luxuriate like the ones in a photograph of a Scottish garden shown to us by Christopher Grey-Wilson in his talk.

Many species are not perennial even if you can get them to grow.  A plant that takes between two and six years to form a rosette up to a yard across before throwing up a magnificent spike of flowers, following which it promptly dies, is not going to be easy to incorporate into a normal smallish garden designed for low to medium maintenance.  I wish now I had asked Christopher Grey-Wilson what, if anything, people who grow them use to fill the gaps while the rosettes are building up to full size, since you would not want anything that competed with the poppies or that was so rare and precious that you would mind if the poppies' expanding rosettes smothered it.  The lovely little red flowered Meconopsis punicea, star of the Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago, almost always dies after flowering and to add insult to injury does not set seed in the Essex climate.

The cheerful little Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica, has been reclassified by the botanists and is no longer considered a member of the genus.  I have never introduced them to our garden because their reputation for reckless self seeding makes even me nervous, and because I am not sure I am so keen on that shade of yellow that I want it everywhere all summer.

So it was an enjoyable talk, and it was nice to catch up with a former colleague from the plant centre whom I hadn't seen for a while, but I think I will go on enjoying blue poppies in the pages of magazines and at Chelsea, and leave the challenge of growing them to other people.

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