M. 'Huntfield'

Meconopsis for first-time growers

Not everyone wishes to study Meconopsis in depth or to grow a wide range of forms. This section is intended as a short introduction to those most readily available as plants in (British) garden centres and nurseries or as seed from seed catalogues. Further information may be obtained on other pages. In particular, see Cultivation, Propagation for raising from seed and cultivation in the garden, and see also Seed Exchange.

Meconopsis have the reputation for being not the easiest of plants to grow. In large measure this is true for gardeners who live in climates less than ideal for these plants. Even in optimum climates their requirements need to be understood for good results. They thrive best where it is cool and moist, such as in Scotland, Ireland, coastal British Columbia, Alaska and the north of Norway, but success can be achieved in warmer and drier climates. With the newcomer to Meconopsis in mind, it is convenient to divide the most commonly available and suitable plants into three categories and to recommend some plants and sources:

  1. Big perennial blue poppies,

  2. Monocarpic forms.

  3. Meconopsis cambrica,

  4. Recommended plants and sources.

1. Big perennial blue poppies
The popular name "Himalayan blue poppies" is usually applied to Meconopsis which grow quite tall (1-1.5m, 3-5ft) and most have beautiful blue flowers. Given suitable conditions and care in cultivation, they should persist and flower year after year. However, in less than ideal conditions, they may prove to be short-lived perennials or in the case of the fertile forms, even monocarpic (i.e. flower and set seed only once before dying).

M. baileyi

For the first-time grower it is perhaps helpful to sub-divide the most suitable and readily available plants into the categories indicated below:

The species M. baileyi is probably the big perennial blue poppy most familiar to gardeners, although until recently (2009) it had been known for many decades under the name Meconopsis betonicifolia. However, the original name, M. baileyi, has recently (2009) been restored to this taxon.- see MM. baileyi & betonicifolia reclassification for an explanation. It is probably the easiest to grow and the one to recommend for warmer and drier climates.

The various big blue poppies are often confused, one with another. But a number of features serve to distinguish M. baileyi. It can be recognised by the smaller flowers than in hybrids (see below), a leaf-blade with a heart-shaped base, and barrel-shaped fruit-capsules with short styles. The capsules are clothed with short, dense bristles, and the seeds are almost spherical, about 1mm in diameter. The seeds may be collected, cleaned and stored dry, in paper envelopes, in a closed plastic box in a domestic fridge ready for sowing at the beginning of the following year.

M. baileyi is quite readily available from garden centres and specialist nurseries. The shapes of the flowers and their shades of blue can be quite variable (see pictures on this page and the supplementary page Flower variability in M. baileyi.) There are also white and deep pink-purple forms - see supplementary page M. baileyi and cultivars 'Alba' & 'Hensol Violet' .

M. baileyi

Cut fruit-capsule and leaf of M. baileyi

Fertile hybrids: M. 'Lingholm' (Fertile Blue Group) is a fertile form which is believed to have originated several decades ago from a sterile hybrid. It is now probably the second most frequently sold form of Meconopsis. It is thought likely that, as a chance event, there was a doubling of the chromosomes in a sterile parent and that this restored its fertility thus enabling it to produce viable seeds. Abundant seed develops in the capsules and as a result many plants are now raised annually. However, M. 'Lingholm' was, and still is, to be found under a variety of erroneous names, including the cultivar name M. sheldonii (sterile) and the species name, M. grandis.

M. 'Lingholm' flowers are sky-blue but larger than in similar M. betonicifolia. Various other features also help to distinguish the two. In M. 'Lingholm', the bases of the leaf-blades gradually taper into the leaf-stalks and the leaves (especially when young) are clothed with long hairs usually with white tips. Seed-capsules are long, elliptical with prominent, long bristles. Viable seeds are plump, kidney-shaped and large (1 x 2mm), If the seeds are only small and flattish, they have not developed properly and will not be viable. This may happen if environmental conditions are unfavourable. Good seed can be harvested, stored and sown as already mentioned for M. betonicifolia and described under Cultivation, Propagation.

M. 'Lingholm'
(Fertile Blue Group)

Cut fruit-capsule, seeds and leaves of M. 'Lingholm'

      Very hairy young leaves
  of M. Fertile Blue Group

M. 'Maggie Sharp'
(Infertile Blue Group)

Sterile hybrids These hybrids are many decades old and have thus stood the test of time. Because they are sterile, the only way to propagate them is by division. Therefore if you can obtain a well-established plant, you can probably be more confident that it will prove to be truly perennial as compared with recently seed-raised plants such as M. baileyi and M. 'Lingholm'. You can also expect to pay a higher price because fewer are available. (Propagation by division produces far fewer plants than growing from seed.)

M. 'Bryan Conway'
(Infertile Blue Group)

M. 'Willie Duncan'

Most hybrids have apparently cropped up in gardens as a result of accidental cross-pollination between species by bees and other insects. The exact parentage is therefore usually uncertain but quite a few different hybrids have been identified. To simplify identification and naming, they have been split into two Groups, namely George Sherriff Group and Infertile Blue Group, plus a few other exceptionally distinctive cultivars. To be within a Group, cultivars must have certain defined similarities which are published. George Sherriff Group comprises a number of sterile clonal cultivars previously lumped together under the invalid name M grandis GS600.

Whilst some cultivars within each Group are very similar to one another, others are markedly different and may have a variety of flowering times. Thus, a diverse collection of blue Meconopsis with a lengthened flowering period can be selected for the garden. The most likely sources for purchase are specialist nurseries. Look out for names such as M 'Slieve Donard', M. 'Jimmy Bayne', M. 'Huntfield', M 'Ascreavie', M. 'Crewdson Hybrid', M. 'Mrs Jebb' etc.
Awards, indicating merit, were awarded to a number of the cultivars at a meeting of the Joint Rock Garden Plant Committee (JRGPC) of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) specially convened for this purpose in June 2005. Further awards were made in 2006, 2008 and 2009. These awards are indicated in the Table of Approved Names. However, it is anticipated that some of these awards will be upgraded in future and also that awards will be made to a number of the other cultivars.

See also Genus page Big perennial blue poppies , Plant portraits and supplementary Table of Approved Names for further information.

M. 'Crewdson Hybrid'
(Infertile Blue Group)

M. 'Jimmy Bayne'
(George Sherriff Group)

M. 'Slieve Donard'
(Infertile Blue Group)

2. Monocarpic forms
There is a second group of Meconopsis which is quite different in habit and appearance from the big perennial blue poppies and which are frequently available from garden centres and nurseries. The most important difference is that they are monocarpic. This means that the plants behave like annuals and die after flowering and setting seed, that is they are not indefinitely perennial. Unlike annuals which go through the whole life-cycle in one year or less, the process of growing to maturity and flowering takes several years. Some of the monocarpic Meconopsis are attractive evergreens.

Plants likely to be encountered in garden centres are M. napaulensis hybrids and M. paniculata (the latter also often hybridised). The lovely rosettes of leaves give pleasure during their several years of growing, getting larger year by year. This applies especially during the bleak months of winter. The leaves may have variously dissected edges and may be green, silvery green or golden. The time will come, one early summer, after two, three or four years and when sufficiently large, for a stout flowering stem (up to 2-3m tall) to arise from the rosette of evergreen leaves and bear a spire of yellow, red, pink or white flowers. The flowering period extends over more than a month, during which the first flowers fade and attractive seed-capsules become prominent in their place. Typically, abundant small, but plump, fertile seeds develop within the capsules as they mature. After seed-setting the plant dies.

Some monocarpic Meconopsis are deciduous and the leaves die down in autumn and all that can be seen is an inconspicuous resting bud at soil level, e.g. M. pseudointegrifolia and M. prattii. There are also other evergreen monocarpic Meconopsis, e.g. M. superba, but these are not so commonly available. Further details can be found on the Plant Portraits and Genus (Monocarpic or perennial) pages.

  M. napaulensis
  leaf- rosette (1m diameter)

  M. paniculata
  leaf- rosette

 M. napaulensis
 (of hort)

M. paniculata
  hybrid

3. Meconopsis cambrica, the Welsh Poppy
This is an undemanding perennial in many climates and is particularly valued by those gardening where other Meconopsis are less easy to please. It can be regarded as a "stand-alone" plant. It is the only one that comes from western Europe and not from the Himalayas or the mountains of western China or Tibet. The botanists say that M. cambrica is not really a Meconopsis, although it was the first to be described and named. It is likely that there will be a name change at some time in the future.

Unlike many other Meconopsis it will grow in both fairly dry and in damp conditions. In a climate good for Meconopsis it often comes to be regarded as a bit weedy as it self-sows rather too readily and if an individual gets established in the middle of another perennial or shrub, it can be difficult to remove because of its stout, long root. In the wild, the flower is single and yellow. Other colour forms have been selected in gardens, e.g. orange and red singles (the latter is the cultivar 'Frances Perry') and as attractive doubles (yellow, orange and red – the latter has been named M. cambrica 'Muriel Brown'). Particularly, if you think you will not be able to succeed with other Meconopsis, then M. cambrica is to be recommended.

M.cambrica

4.1 Some recommended plants

To help gardeners choose plants for their gardens, The Royal Horticultural Society organise committees which assess plants for this purpose. Since 2005 the Joint Rock Garden Plant Committee (JRGPC) has met annually for this purpose. A number of cultivars have been given awards (First Class Certificate, Award of Merit and Preliminary Commendation). This set of awards is ostensibly given to plants for exhibition, but they also give a good indication of garden-worthiness. Another award is the Award of Garden Merit. This indicates that a cultivar or species has been judged by an appropriate committee to be of outstanding excellence for use in the garden. The RHS has started (2010) a trial of 23 cultivars which will run for several years. It is anticipated that a number of the plants given awards by the JRGPC will also be given an AGM. A full enumeration of Award plants is given in the Table of approved names.

Species big blue poppies
For the species, the easiest to grow is probably M. baileyi AGM (betonicifolia of hort.). Confusingly, seeds and plants will undoubtedly continue to be labelled M. betonicifolia by seedsmen, nurseries and garden centres for some time to come before the restored name baileyi catches on and is accepted. True M. grandis is becoming a little more readily available, but care is needed in obtaining validly named seeds or plants. M. simplicifolia appears to be limited in availability at the present time.

Big perennial blue hybrids
If your preference is for as pure a sky-blue as possible, then good choices are:
    MM. 'Lingholm' AM, 'Slieve Donard' AGM,FCC, 'Bobby Masterton' PC,
     'Bryan Conway',
and 'P.C. Abildgaard' AM.
For a consistently deeper, but pure blue,
     MM. 'Mrs Jebb' AM and 'Crewdson Hybrid' AM
are to be recommended.
A consistently pale-blue cultivar is:
     M. 'Maggie Sharp' PC.
For soft mauvy-blue, almost globular flowers:
     M. 'Crarae'

M. 'Keillour'
(not assigned to a Group)

Plants within George Sherriff Group appear to be the forms that are usually most variable in colour, ranging on occasion from a deep, pure blue to a more lilacy-blue or purple at other times, or in other gardens etc. For many people these are attractive and desirable features. Examples are MM. 'Jimmy Bayne' AM, 'Huntfield' AM, 'Dalemain', 'Ascreavie' PC and 'Dorothy Renton'.

        As yet un-named large-flowered,
      near-white hybrid

Two other cultivars are unusual in being consistently bicoloured. These are M. 'Barney's Blue' AM and M. 'Keillour'.

Others
Polycarpic perennial Meconopsis, other than the "big blues", include
  M. quintuplinervia AGM and M. x cookei 'Old Rose' AM.
The latter is an excellent new introduction raised by a member of The Meconopsis Group.

The following monocarpic non-blue forms may be more readily obtainable, if not as plants, then by raising from seed.
M. napaulensis (of hort.), M. paniculata, M. punicea, M. prattii (often known in gardens as M. horridula, which is not strictly correct), M. pseudointegrifolia, M. integrifolia (seemingly not at all commonly grown at present, although it was a number of years ago) and M. superba.

Finally it must be pointed out that this list is not exhaustive. Also, extensive enquiries have indicated that despite the fairly common listing of M. regia as plants or seeds (or labelled as such in gardens), this species is not currently in cultivation, although it was in the past. The plants or seeds at present attributed to M. regia (even by a reputable seed company as in the picture opposite) are undoubtedly hybrids with much greater kinship to M. napaulensis (of hort.) and/or M. paniculata than to M. regia

Rosette of M. regia in cultivation
(not completely pure)

      Rosettes of purported M. regia (but
      clearly hybrids, possibly even with no
      regia at all in the parentage)

4.2 Sources
The following is applicable to all members of the genus. Basically, to satisfy the need of gardeners for new plants, two means are available, either from seed or vegetatively by division. For fertile forms which set viable seed, the gardener has the choice of raising plants himself starting with seeds, or of buying commercially seed-raised young plants from a nurseryman or garden centre. For the sterile hybrids, the only way is to divide one's own plants, or, to obtain new forms for the garden, to buy vegetatively propagated pot-grown plants. Occasionally, plants lifted from the open-ground may be available.

Pictures taken at specialist nurseries.
Left: Vegetative propagation of sterile cultivars of big blue poppies in a polytunnel.
Right: Uniformly fine plants of M.'Lingholm' raised from seed.

Seeds
Meconopsis have the reputation for being difficult to raise from seed. This is perhaps only partly justified as some people seem to have no problem with plants such as M. baileyi or M. 'Lingholm'. However, quality of seed has been called into question, and we have been performing controlled trials to test for success in germination. It appears that the way to achieve best results is to harvest and carefully store home-harvested seed (see Cultivation and Propagation 3. Raising from seed). It is possible to obtain a wider range of species from the seed exchanges of specialist societies such as The Meconopsis Goup, The Scottish Rock Garden Club, the Alpine Garden Society and the North American Rock Garden Society. To take part in these exchanges it is necessary to be a member of the society.

A more limited number of forms can be obtained by mail-order or on-line from seed companies. Although seeds from these sources often seem to be less successful than home-collected seed, they appear to give better germination than those from garden centres, even if supplied by the same seed company. There is less choice in forms available from garden centres and such seed often disappoints by failing to germinate at all. This is presumably due to the environment prevailing in garden centres being rather hostile to retention of seed viability, or maybe is due to seed being stocked on the shelves for too long.

Pot-grown plants
The alternative to growing one's own plants from seed is to buy established young plants in pots. Open-ground material may sometimes be available. Most commonly found are M. baileyi, M.'Lingholm' and maybe a few other forms from garden centres and the sales tables of "Meconopsis-rich" gardens open to the public For the rarer, sterile clonal cultivars of the big perennial blue poppies it is usually necessary to obtain them from specialist nurseries and other nurseries listed in The Plant Finder. Fortunately, the range of cultivars being offered by specialist nurseries is slowly but steadily increasing since the identities and names have now been largely sorted out in the last ten years. Some nurseries are happy, on request, to grow a given cultivar to order if it is not already available from stock. The specialist nurseries usually also aim to stock a few of the rarer species.

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