Sowing poppy seeds in winter is the way to go, or is it?

Erin Schanen

There are some seeds that I will go to great lengths to nurture and grow, and then there are others that require barely any more thought than tossing them over your shoulder.

It turns out that one of my favorite flowers can be both.

I’ve always grown breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum) by simply scattering seeds in the garden on top the snow in winter. This has worked well for me, with the exception of having to do some major thinning when they germinate in a big clump, no matter how thinly I try to sow.

Because poppies are champion seed producers and the easiest plant to collect seed from (their seedheads are a literal shaker that you just pour out into your hand), I always have plenty of seeds to repeat this sowing process a few times from January through March.

This method of direct sowing in winter fulfills the cold period required for the seeds to germinate, something that nearly every seed packet you buy will tell you is a requirement. But that might not be the case.

Matt Mattus, a Pennsylvanian gardener and author of “Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening,” likes to dig into the background of almost every plant he grows, and he insists that not only is this cold treatment not necessary to grow these annual poppies, they actually germinate better between 70 and 80 degrees.

Mattus, who I correspond with on a semi-regular basis when I’m looking for something new and exciting to grow, informed me last year when he saw me sowing poppies in the snow that these plants originated in the Middle East and he could find nothing to back up the notion that they require cold stratification.

In fact, Mattus says that Turkish opium growers (yes, the poppy that we gently call the breadseed poppy is the opium poppy) succession sow poppy seeds every three weeks in high heat.

His own trials have born this out, and he reports that he has had 100% germination in four days starting seeds at 70 degrees and even faster germination at 80 degrees. But this assumes that you’re starting poppy seeds in trays on a heated mat and growing under lights. Which leads to the great transplant debate.

Poppies are said to be notoriously fussy about root disturbance, but Mattus very gently teases his seedlings out when they are only about a quarter-inch tall, transplanting them into large pots where he grows them for the rest of summer.

I suppose I’d consider using Mattus’s painstaking method for very special poppy seeds, but it requires a degree of patience I have a hard time summoning.

Although our methods may vary, we agree on one point: Poppy seeds need consistent moisture to germinate, something that usually isn’t difficult to provide in our damp springs.

And Mattus has one more tip that I may employ: Mix the seeds with sand to help sow them thinly, so drastic thinning or “gentle teasing” isn’t necessary when they germinate.


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