Mm. integrafolia, punicea, sino-maculata in Qinghai

Brief Introduction to the Genus

Perhaps surprisingly, many people are unfamiliar with the genus Meconopsis, and may never have heard of it. The purpose here is to introduce various pertinent aspects of this lovely genus. These are discussed under (linked) sections:

  1. Defining the genus Meconopsis within the family Papaveraceae

  2. Distribution of the species in the wild

  3. Variability within the genus

  4. Big perennial blue Himalayan poppies

3.  Variability within the genus
Species or hybrid - mononocarpic or perennial - fertile or sterile - flower colour and size range

There are 40-50 species of Meconopsis known in the wild. Some are in cultivation and there are a number of garden hybrids. Wide variability occurs within the genus and some aspects of this often lead to confusions for gardeners. This is introduced briefly in the following paragraphs.
The Species Table indicates which are in cultivation. Details of many of the individual hybrids and species will also be found on the Plant Portraits page.

Species or hybrid status
With a few exceptions, Meconopsis found growing in the wild are species, but, in cultivation, hybrids are created by inter-breeding between species. This is because in gardens various species have been brought together in close proximity, a situation which does not normally occur in the wild. Most of the hybrids in cultivation have apparently been produced haphazardly by insect pollinators, with deliberate breeding by gardeners rarely attempted.
For further information see Section 4 Big perennial blue Himalayan poppies.

M. x cookei in Qinghai

M. x cookei 'Old Rose'

M. quintuplinervia (perennial)

M. punicea

The hybrid, M. x cookei, (parentage M. punicea crossed with M. quintuplinervia) was first known as the result of a deliberate crossing made in cultivation. This occurred long before it was found as a natural hybrid in the wild a few years ago. The particularly attractive form illustrated here, M. x cookei 'Old Rose', was deliberately bred by Leslie Drummond about 10 years ago. Whereas M. xcookei (certainly this particular clone) and M. quintuplinervia are both soundly perennial, M punicea invariably dies after flowering in cultivation. However, it is often reported to appear to be perennial in the wild, but this has not been proven.

Monocarpic or polycarpic perennial (species or hybrids)
Both monocarpic and polycarpic perennial species and hybrids of Meconopsis are generally available from garden centres and nurseries that stock this genus. Frequently gardeners are not clearly aware of the fundamental differences between these two contrasting conditions, and it is important to understand these. By monocarpic is meant that starting from a sown seed, the resulting plant flowers and produces its own seed once only in its life-cycle, before dying. In the case of Meconopsis, the monocarpic life-cycle usually spans several years, and such plants are thus short-lived perennials. Many of them are evergreen and others are deciduous. In the case of polycarpic perennials, the plants have the inherent potential to be long-lived and flower annually for many years. In Meconopsis, individuals are known which are many decades old. Although, being perennial, they will produce flowers every year, some set seed (i.e. they are fertile) and some do not (i.e. they are sterile).
For further discussion see supplementary pages Monocarpic Meconopsis and Perennial Meconopsis. The Species Table lists monocarpic or perennial status and evergreen or deciduous habit.

M. 'Huntfield'

Fertile or sterile (species or hybrids)
Another topic that it is important for gardeners to understand surrounds that of seed collection and sowing in order to produce a new generation of plants. It is frequently assumed that the small structures found inside the fruit-capsules are viable seeds. This, unfortunately, is often not the case. Both fertile (able to produce seed capable of germination) and sterile (incapable of producing viable seed) forms occur within Meconopsis grown in gardens. Fertility is, of course, a necessity for the species if they are to persist in existence. Amongst the garden hybrids, plants of considerable garden merit have resulted from cross-breeding (hybridisation). Many of these are sterile, but there are also important fertile hybrids.

Sometimes, although the seeds found in the fruit-capsules are inherently viable, for some environmental reason (e.g. poor weather conditions when pollination should have taken place), they may not be so. In other cases the plants are inherently sterile and incapable of forming viable seed and the seed observed is abortive. The appearance of the seeds (plump and not flat and papery in texture) often gives a good guide to viability, but this is not always so and the only option open is to sow the seed and wait to see if it germinates.

M. 'Lingholm' flowers and fruit-capsules

M. 'Slieve Donard' flowers and fruit-capsules

Note that whilst the flowers of both these cultivars are similar, there are well-developed seeds (see insets) in the M. 'Lingholm fruit-capsules (fertile cultivar), but only abortive in M. 'Slieve Donard' (sterile cultivar).

If the plants (both species and hybrids) are fertile, sexual reproduction from seed is, of course, possible and for monocarpic plants is the only means available. If the plants are sterile, they are dependent on asexual or vegetative reproduction for new generations of plants and increase in numbers. This ability is exploited by gardeners and nurserymen in the technique of vegetative propagation by division. For further information see Cultivation, Propagation.
Meconopsis have the reputation of being rather difficult to grow. For many of the rarer species this is decidedly the case, but even the more commonly-grown species and hybrids are not the easiest. To try to help gardeners, it is worth pointing out here that on occasion even the fertile, seed-raised big blue poppies, M. 'Lingholm' (Fertile Blue Group) and M. baileyi may not prove to be as perennial as expected.
For further information with photographs, see the supplementary page Perennial Meconopsis and Section 4 Big perennial blue poppies and its appropriate supplementary pages.

Flower colour and plant size
Flower colour and the sizes of the plants are two other aspects of the genus in which wide variability is encountered. Blue is a colour not too commonly seen in garden plants but visions of shades of blue is probably the one that most usually comes to mind in most people's minds when they think of Meconopsis. Many of both the monocarpic and perennial Meconopsis have flowers of this valued hue, but other colours seen in gardens where Meconopsis are grown are yellows, whites and the startling red of M. punicea.
For further discussion see supplementary page Colour range.

Probably more striking than the range in flower colour is the size range of the plants. The most popular big perennial blue poppies are tall, flowering at around one to one and a half metres. Others of the more commonly grown garden plants (e.g. M wallichii) are even taller, at 2 to two and a half metres. At the other extreme are tiny plants only a few cm tall (for the most part most of these have proved difficult or even impossible so far in cultivation, e.g. M. bella). However, there are excellent garden plants of intermediate height, e.g. perennial M. quintuplinervia and monocarpic M. prattii.
For further discussion see Plant Portraits.

M. bella (perennial)
12 cm high

M. wallichii (monocarpic)
more than 2m high

This is the end of Section 3; for other sections of Brief introduction to the Genus click on one of the links:

1. Defining the genus Meconopsis
2. Distribution of the species in the wild

3. Variability within the genus
4. Big perennial blue Himalayan poppies

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