Iceland Poppies: Spring Chameleons of the Bouquet Blueprint

Spring is a season filled with anticipation.  The Earth softens, the pastures begin their transition from muted gold to bright green, and the first flower buds unfurl to reveal their colors. Among the blooms of spring, Iceland poppies are a must-grow, in my opinion, not just for their delicate beauty and the thrilling unpredictability of their hues – but also because of their versatility within the Bouquet BlueprintTM.

From Buds to Blooms: Poppies' Pivotal Place in the Bouquet Blueprint

In terms of its role in the Blueprint framework, which relies on six different floral types to create mixed bouquets, the Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule) is a floral shapeshifter. In its bud or semi-open form, we nestle it among other blooms, where it plays a supportive role as a Foundation Flower. This stage of bloom is the one you’ll most often see in our mixed bouquets, as its partially open state gives a preview of its ultimate beauty while still ensuring a longer vase life for our customers than if it were fully open. Because, while poppies have many virtues, exceptionally long vase life, sadly, is not one of them.

Whether tucked into a bouquet where the parrot tulips are the focal flower (left) or as part of an installation that includes peonies (right), Iceland poppies are well-suited to the role of a Foundation Flower.

Iceland poppies have a longer vase life than other poppies, such as Corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) or Breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum), which is why those other varieties don't find their way into our fields. Despite their stunning beauty, the ephemeral vase life of these other Papaver species simply doesn't align with the value we place on longevity in the vase.

Iceland poppies can vary tremendously in size.  Particularly with the large, “Hummingbird” varietal – my top poppy choice for use as a cut flower – some will open into flowers that are easily four to five inches (10-13 centimeters) in diameter and are easily elevated to the role of a Focal Flower.

When a large Iceland poppy is fully open, it can easily hold its own as a Focal Flower. 

Smaller blooms, which we see more often towards the end of the poppy season or that cultivars like “Champagne Bubbles” tend to produce, are exceptional Floater Flowers. Their paper-like petals give them a delicate presence that excels in that category’s role in “floating” above the rest of the bouquet.

Even a medium-sized poppy can take on the Floater Flower role, when it's part of a large compote arrangement.

This transformative quality of Iceland poppies can be used to advantage within the Blueprint framework. For example, we will sometimes use a fully open Iceland poppy in a mixed bouquet as a time-limited Focal Flower.  It holds the Focal position for a couple of days, after which it begins its graceful decline, shedding its petals one by one and giving other Focal Flowers within the bouquet – such as peonies or double tulips – time to open fully and assume the Focal role. 

Hunting Hues Among Sherbet Shades

As much as their versatility, form, and texture ensure Iceland poppies are a staple in our fields year after year, it's their deliciously vivid colors that truly captivate me. Their blossoms span the warm spectrum of sherbet hues — from lemon yellow to creamy orange and pink, and even pristine white. Their tones range from the softest blush to the most saturated, traffic-cone orange.

Iceland poppies yield two colors, in particular, that I find utterly irresistible: a pink with just a whisper of orange, too subtle to be called salmon and more akin to the vibrant blush on a watermelon’s flesh. Then there's a transitional shade that straddles yellow and orange—richer than the pulp of a Meyer lemon (which is thought to come from a cross between an orange and lemon, and a staple of my childhood thanks to a small but wildly productive tree in our backyard in California), yet not as intense as the vivid orange tones of saffron. The closest representation of this elusive yellow-orange hue I can think of is the color of the yolks in the eggs laid by our beloved, backyard hens—a hue that is neither fully orange nor purely yellow and a far cry from the paler yellow of store-bought eggs.

The rainbow sherbet hues of Iceland poppies make my mouth water, but it's the occasional watermelon-pink flowers (center) and the yellow-orange ones that I eagerly search the poppy row for every year.

What makes poppies addictive, for me, is the challenge of finding these particular hues in our yearly crop.  Iceland poppies are not available as stable, color-specific cultivars beyond “pink,” “orange,” “yellow,” "peach," and “white.” Instead, my treasured watermelon pink and yellow-orange poppies are found in the subtle color variations that exist from one poppy plant to another, and it is that yearly hunt for the “perfect” hues – among all of the other beautiful pinks, yellows, oranges –  that keeps my passion for Iceland poppies perennially fresh. I guess I like a flower that plays hard-to-get.

Rooting for Success:  The Fall Foundation

For us, fall planting sets the stage for an abundant poppy harvest in spring.  We plant plugs (we’ve ordered ours from Farmer Bailey, Gro ‘n Sell, and Onings America – all have been high quality) into unheated caterpillar tunnels, where they spend winter focused on developing their root systems.  That enables them to rapidly put on foliar growth in late winter and then start throwing out giant buds in March.

Just-planted poppy plugs (left) have the entire winter to establish their roots when we plant them in our unheated caterpillar tunnels (center).  That foundation enables them to put on rapid growth and start throwing out a rapid succession of blooms come early spring (right).

We opt for plugs over seeds to ensure reliability in our poppy cultivation. My success in growing them from seed has been spotty, largely due to the challenges associated with ensuring proper cold stratification of the seeds during the heat of early fall. Seed-starting failures are not a risk I’m willing to take given that timely Fall planting is crucial, in our climate, to produce the best quality flowers over the longest possible bloom period. Because our springs are all too short, if the plants haven’t had a long, cold winter to develop their root systems, they simply cannot produce flowers early enough in the season to generate an adequate number of blooms in the short window until summer temperatures hit. 

Later in spring, as the temperatures begin to rise, we use shade cloth over the tunnel hoops to keep the plants as cool as possible.  By early June, however, there is nothing we can do to combat the heat and humidity that sends the poppies into dormancy and, reluctantly, we say our goodbyes to this cherished spring bloom.

Covering the tunnels with shadecloth in mid April, or whenever the temperatures start getting too warm for poppies, helps prolong the growing season.

Claws and Effect: Poppy (and Zinnia) Save the Poppies

My journey with poppies hasn't been without its adversaries. With our flower fields positioned adjacent to acres of open pasture, voles and other animals with a taste for the tender roots of our young plants are a perennial winter nemesis.

The first few years I grew Iceland poppies, every week I would find a few more precise, almost artfully crafted holes in the tunnels where young poppy plants once resided. Those neatly excavated holes stood as damning circumstantial evidence that a vole had been silently feasting on our poppies, undoing our careful planting from below the surface. At first, it would be just a few holes, here and there. But they started to add up, gradually erasing our chances of a solid poppy harvest, come spring.

For years, I'd order an extra tray of plugs – scheduled to arrive in early March instead of Fall – as a hedge against the voles’ winter appetites. The early spring-planted poppies didn’t provide the same production level or large blooms as the fall-planted ones, but it was better than those empty holes.

Then came Poppy and Zinnia, our barn cats, whose presence has rewritten our poppy narrative. No longer do I need the insurance of extra plants, as our feline guardians do a great job securing the safety of our poppies from voles. We’d still adore them even if their contributions to the farm weren't as significant as they are, but we sure appreciate their talents as fierce predators.

Poppy, meet Poppy... (left).  Our barn cats won our hearts with their shy but affectionate personalities, but they are also fierce predators who have almost eliminated our winter crop losses from voles.

Poppy Alchemy: A Brief Summary

In our Bouquet Blueprint™, the Iceland poppy is a floral shapeshifter. In embracing the full spectrum of roles that the Iceland poppy can play within our Bouquet Blueprint™, each poppy bloom contributes to the dialogue between florist, flower, and observer. It is this effortless adaptability, delicious sherbet-hued colors, and the layered depth it brings to our bouquets that cements its place as a cherished favorite on our farm.

For more stories, tips, and information on what the Bouquet BlueprintTM is, and how to use it most effectively on your flower journey, we hope you’ll keep following along with us. Sign up here to make sure you don’t miss anything!

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