The Himalayan blue poppy Meconopsis betonicifolia.
Meconopsis have a reputation for being stunning but tricky to grow, especially when compared to other members of the family Papaveraceae. Relatives such as the many Orientale poppy (Papaver orientale) cultivars are much easier to grow, more readily available and are seen commonly in gardens across the UK. There is something very special about Meconopsis and crowds are often seen admiring them when displayed at shows or in gardens. The bright blue flowers occur from late spring-early summer on open heads of up to 6 flowers per spike and can be 5cm in diameter. All stems and foliage are covered with bristly golden brown hairs, the leaves are oblong, often serrated and grow to 30cm long. A white form is also in cultivation, Meconopsis betonicifolia var alba.
They are often considered as reserved only for the specialist and experienced gardener, but why is this the case and how do we resolve it? Firstly, we need to consider where they grow naturally in the wild in order to understand what conditions their require. As is often the way with much successful planting, this information can then be used to inform our own manipulation of the environment in our own gardens.
Meconopsis are native to parts of the Himalayas, mountainous regions in Tibet and Western China- areas with a few similarities, all cold, often with lots of snow cover in the winter, they experience monsoon conditions and have high amounts of rainfall in the summer months. Parts of the UK, such as the majority of Scotland and Northern England experience weather that allow the garden to stay cool and moist enough to grow Meconopsis successfully, much more easily than warmer and drier Southern England. However, with some manipulation, the Southern gardener can create a micro-climate to keep the plants cool and moist, enabling the species to be grown with success.
Meconopsis betonicifolia is a perennial, often short lived native to NW Yunnan, SE Xizang NE Burma, and is found growing in woods, alpine meadows and along streams at 3000-4000m elevation. In the UK, Meconopsis betonicifolia can be successfully grown in woodland conditions (such as is done at Kew Gardens) or semi-shade, with moist, deep, humus rich well drained soils, this will help keep the plants cool in the summer months and help slow down the drying out of the soil summer watering may be needed. Alternatively in the South, a bog garden situation could be considered as this means the root system will remain moist and stay cooler during the hotter months of the year (such is achieved at Wakehurst). Sometimes this species can be monocarpic, so preventing it from flowering in its second year will help force it to produce side shoots at the base resulting in a bigger clump which will flower the following year and continue to flower for years to come.
This species can be bought from specialist nurseries or plant fairs, as is in not often seen in many garden centres. Alternatively seed can be bought from specialist suppliers online.
Two main methods of propagation
New plants can be produced by division if a plant has side shoots, which can be teased off and either potted up or planted straight into the ground. This is best done in early spring or autumn, care needs to be taken to ensure the off shoots are removed with roots attached.
Otherwise sow seed in autumn so that the seed is exposed to the colder winter temperatures. Half fill a seed tray with a well drained seed compost, tamp down the compost using a small wood board to flatten and compact the compost. Once the compost is flat, sow the seeds over the surface as evenly as you can. Cover the seeds with a 5mm layer of fine grit. Use a watering can with a fine rose to give the seed tray a good soaking. Place the tray in a cold-frame or place a piece of glass over the seed tray and put in a sheltered location outside. Germination will take place in spring once the temperatures begin to rise. Alternatively the seed tray can be moved to a green house or placed on a windowsill in early spring. Once pricked out, plants can be hardened off and then planted in a suitable part of the garden.
Generally Meconopsis need to be protected from slugs as they can devastate them in a short time period especially when newly planted, the use of sharp grits, slug pellets or nematodes really need to be considered.