Martha's Love Affair with Poppies Began Decades Ago—Discover Some of Her Favorite Varieties to Date

pink, purple, and red poppies
Ngoc Minh Ngo

Before Martha discovered poppies, she was a fan of their seeds. "All of my grandparents came from Poland," she explains. "They brought with them the most delicious recipes." Their slate of eastern European fare included babkas and bagels, hamantaschen and rolled coffee cakes, and the German mohnkuchen, a cake filled with ground poppy seeds, raisins, and honey. "I love them in anything," she says.

When Martha started designing her own gardens more than four decades ago, that reverence spilled over to the plants. She learned that the flowers come in every stripe and shape, well beyond the orangey-red Oriental perennials (Papaver orientale) her father grew when she was a child. Since her first plot at Turkey Hill, she has been cultivating the beauties, exploring colors and forms, and figuring out new ways to maximize their ethereal impact, whether in a flower bed or vase. She tapped her friend Kevin Sharkey, executive vice president and executive director of design for the Martha brands, to make the stunning arrangements on these pages.

The plants offer something charming at every stage of growth, from fuzzy, nodding buds and eccentric, wiry stems to blooms that open flat and face straight into the sun. Martha sources seeds from specialty catalogs, such as Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Select Seeds, and like seasoned gardeners everywhere, she takes part in a lovely ritual every fall: swapping and sharing the seeds she saves from the scepter-like heads.

Her collection spans the spectrum, from scarlet to gray to pink to near-black, and it showcases ruffled, feathery, and paper-like petals that mimic the surrounding peonies, carnations, and roses in her beds. "People come to my garden now and all they want are poppy seeds," says Martha with a laugh. She especially loves two European annual varieties that reseed so profusely, they could be mistaken for perennials: P. somniferum, called breadseed or opium poppies; and P. rhoeas (Flanders, corn, or Shirley), scarlet blooms best known as a token of remembrance for soldiers lost in war, an association that dates to World War I. Both kinds proliferate in late spring at Bedford, where Martha and her head gardener, Ryan McCallister, relish the serendipity of hybrids and self-seeded volunteers that crop up unannounced. They also sow strategically—anticipating where they can disguise spent lupine and peony blooms, or distract from green masses of plants yet to flower—as well as continuously from February to April, to extend the season. Since the seeds are so tiny, some as fine as dust, they combine one part seed with three parts sand before shaking the mix onto the ground to prevent overcrowding. "Otherwise you end up with dense clumps of seedlings that strangle each other or rot, due to the lack of air circulation," Ryan explains.

Though the flowers are unfussy growers, they tend to be fragile—and, once harvested, fleeting. When snipping them, keep a bucket of cold water by your side and immerse each stem immediately. Then sear the ends with a match to stop the flow of the milky sap, which can clog the stem. Martha is happy to leave the floral design to Kevin, who shares her taste for abundant bouquets in striking palettes.

Meanwhile, she's busy seeking the holy grail of the Papaveraceae family: Meconopsis, the Himalayan blue poppy, a striking and notoriously temperamental Tibetan native that likes cool temperatures and partial shade. "My goal is to get them to grow here in Bedford," she says. "I don't know how yet. I'm going to figure it out." Stay tuned.

Pictured here, an array of varieties from her garden, including breadseed, which can have feathery and ruffly petals and comes in purples, reds, and pinks.

01 of 05

Memory Lane

oriental poppies landscaped garden
Ngoc Minh Ngo

The tall Oriental poppies, marked with black centers, in Martha's Bedford perennial plot remind her of ones her father planted when she was growing up in New Jersey.

02 of 05

Drama Queens

poppy arrangement chinese porcelain vase
Ngoc Minh Ngo

Poppies, pink roses, purple lupines, bell-like foxgloves, Siberian irises, and frothy cotinus blooms spill lavishly from a large Chinese porcelain vase; Kevin formed a sturdy base of cotinus branches, fern fronds, and Rodgersia leaves to support them.

"Poppies are delicate, so it's important to build a supporting structure into any arrangement, whether it's using foliage or other flowers," Kevin says.

03 of 05

Monochromatic Display

pink rose and poppy arrangement
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Fuchsia roses and three kinds of poppy—feathered, pom-pom, and peony—sit tight in a monochromatic display; Kevin arranged them densely because they can be heavy: "This way, they can rest their heads on someone else's shoulder."

04 of 05

Crimson and Chartreuse

crimson poppies
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Crimson poppies float over a chartreuse cloud of lady's mantle, their dainty stems buttressed by a narrow vintage coffeepot.

05 of 05

All Aflutter

poppy and perennial garden
Ngoc Minh Ngo

Martha plants poppies to fill gaps between perennials and to create waves of color. At left, white and mauve breadseed hybrids intermingle with bright-red classic Flanders and 'Amazing Gray' Shirley poppies. The flowers can grow in a range of climates, from Zones 2 to 9. Site them where they have plenty of sun (six to eight hours per day) and can root into moist, well-drained soil. They don't require much tending as long as they're not overwatered (poppies are susceptible to fungal diseases and rot) or transplanted (the long taproots are easily broken). In milder areas, sowing seeds in the fall will produce early-spring germination.

"Perennial gardeners are always looking for ways to bridge the seasons. Here in Zone 5, my breadseed poppies fill the color gap between spring and summer, says Martha.

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