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Blue Poppies: The Flower Once Thought to be a Myth

For many years, people outside Asia believed that blue poppies were nothing more than the fever dreams of Romantic poets or obsessive gardeners who’d spent too much time in the sun. After all, blue is one of the rarest colors for flowers, appearing in less than 10% of the world’s species of blooming plants.

But blue poppies are no myth. A handful of cerulean species grace the hillsides of the Himalayas and surrounding areas, glowing against the pale rock and green meadows. They include the deep azure of Meconopsis grandis, the paler baby blue of M. baileyi and M. betonicifolia (once thought to be the same species), and the sapphire of M. gakyidiana (the national flower of Bhutan), plus related species. Their translucent petals often nod down from slightly prickly stems; when stressed, they grow streaked with plum, becoming even more beautiful. The blue poppies are not considered true poppies — that distinction belongs only to the members of the Papaver genus — but are commonly called poppies, much as the California poppy is. Their genus, Meconopsis, boasts 90 species in a range of brilliant colors, including red, yellow, and purple.

Though blue poppies were first “discovered” in China in 1886 by a French Jesuit missionary and botanist named Pére Jean Marie Delavay, their fate in the West is often tied to Frank Kingdon-Ward, one of the premier plant-hunters of the 20th century. Kingdon-Ward made 25 trips to the Himalayas throughout his life and collected the first viable blue poppy seed for British gardens.

The Era of Blossom Hunters

Group of blue poppies in a garden
Credit: brytta/ iStock

The son of a botany professor at Cambridge, Kingdon-Ward’s own academic career was cut short when his father died in 1906 and he was forced to leave university two years into his degree because of the family’s finances. A family friend arranged for him to teach in Shanghai, but the life of a schoolteacher was not what Kingdon-Ward had in mind. In 1909, he jumped at the chance to go on a zoological expedition in China sponsored by the Duke of Bedford. There, in the western border regions near Tibet, he discovered a species of mouse and two new species of shrews, sent a collection of plants back to Cambridge, and returned more or less ready to spend the rest of his life exploring the interior of the region.

Luckily for him, Kingdon-Ward lived in an era when horticultural retailers were willing to fund botanical explorers on trips in search of plants for English gardens. Bees Ltd. — a prominent British plant and seed company — had recently lost the famed plant hunter George Forrest to a rival operation and was looking for a replacement who would be more exclusive. They found their ideal man in Kingdon-Ward, who set off in 1911 for a year-long trip to the mountains of southwest China. Despite enduring malaria and a period where he survived on flower nectar and wild plants, he brought back an impressive load of new plants — 200 species, including 22 that were new to science. He also glimpsed blue poppies, writing of them in his (aptly titled) book The Land of the Blue Poppy: “Up here, at 17,000 feet, springing from amongst huge blocks of grey stone, I found the glorious Cambridge blue poppywort (Meconopsis speciosa), one of the most beautiful flowers in existence.”

Alas, the ice-blue, sweetly scented M. speciosa failed to thrive in England. It was only on his fifth collecting journey, in 1924-5, that he brought back seeds from the blue poppy that would make his reputation. This expedition explored the Tsangpo River, which flows across southern Tibet and on into India, where it becomes the Brahmaputra. Amid the soaring mountains and deep gorges, while hunting for a mythical waterfall, Kingdon-Ward glimpsed M. baileyi. “The flowers flutter out from amongst the sea-green leaves like blue-and-gold butterflies;” he later wrote, “each is borne singly on a pedicel, the plant carrying half a dozen nodding, incredibly blue 4-petalled flowers, with a wad of golden anthers in the center.”

Kingdon-Ward held out high hopes this poppy would flourish in England since it came from a moderate elevation without extreme temperatures, and being a perennial, would “not exasperate gardeners,” and it’s true that M. baileyi was an immediate success in certain gardens. The seeds that Kingdon-Ward collected arrived in Britain in February 1925 and were distributed to 50 expert gardeners for a trial. They were a success, and as the author Bill Terry writes in his book Blue Heaven: Encounters With the Blue Poppy, “the broad, incredibly blue petals unfurled to enraptured applause at the Royal Horticultural Society’s spring show” in 1926. The plant even received an Award of Merit there. The next spring, gardeners of means were “snapping up seedlings” at the Chelsea Flower Show for the equivalent of more than $50 each today. A large bed of the poppies also flowered at Kensington Gardens, delighting visitors. “Blue Poppy mania had taken root,” writes Terry.

How to Grow Blue Poppies

Close up of a group of blue poppies
Credit: Debu55y/ Shutterstock

However, many home gardeners (then and now) have found blue poppies considerably more difficult to grow. “Most gardeners speak of the Blue Poppy with a sigh, in the past tense, or in the future with a wary sense of hope. Never the present,” Terry notes in Blue Heaven. Many gardening books describe it as nearly impossible to cultivate unless you’re an expert — they’ve been called “the Holy Grail of garden plants.” The English author and landscape designer Vita Sackville-West called it “the dream of every gardener.”

Blue poppies are definitely particular: they will only grow in cool, moist, northern regions of Europe, in the Pacific Northwest, parts of New England, and Alaska. Yet according to Terry, many of the difficulties gardeners experience come from the fact that the seed they use has been handled or stored incorrectly before it ever comes to their door. The seeds rapidly lose viability when stored at room temperature, he writes, and should only be purchased between November and February, then stored in the fridge and started soon. The plants prefer moist, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter and shelter from shade and winds. They also tend to die after their first flowering, so some gardeners will forgo the first years of flowers — if they can bear it — in hopes of more later.  (The Royal Horticultural Society has other growing tips.)

Where to See Blue Poppies

Blue poppies with more greenery in the background
Credit: Louise Cunningham/ iStock

If you’ve got more of a black thumb than a green one, there are several botanical gardens in the U.S. where you can see the Himalayan blue poppies. The Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, Washington, has a blue poppy meadow and a much-loved “Blue Poppy Day” each year. Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, grows the turquoise-blue cultivar 'Lingholm,’ which they force to flower each March. Blue poppies can also be seen at the Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, Pennsylvania. In Canada, they’ve been spotted at Jardins de Métis (Reford Gardens) in Grand-Métis, Quebec, as well as at The Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, which even has a restaurant named for them. This list is not exhaustive, and since the poppies’ popularity seems to only be growing, other botanical gardens may add them in the future.

But plant-lovers, beware: these flowers have been known to stoke longing in even the most hardened heart, and you might not be able to leave without buying a few seeds of your own. Yet unless you live in one of their preferred growing regions, it’s probably better to enjoy their gorgeous blues from afar — or perhaps plan a future trip to one of the places they thrive, like where Kingdon-Ward first saw them more than  a century ago.

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