Collecting Poppy Seeds: Fall Gardening Chores

– Posted in: Garden chores, Seeds and Seed Starting
9 comments

How to Collect Poppy Seeds

Corn poppies have hairy stems. Opium poppies have smooth, grey-green stems.

Collecting seeds is an optional fall chore for me. Most of the time I depend on the plants’ own willingness to disperse seeds, or the availability of the seed from seed companies. But every so often I grow a plant and I am not sure I will be able to buy more seed, or I want to grow the plant in a new place, or I want to share the seed. This year, that situation came up with poppies.

I grow two kinds of annual poppies: corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and opium poppies (Papaver somniferum). Both kinds have self-sown moderately in my previous garden, but neither transplants easily. If you even manage to get a poppy to grow after it’s been moved, it is never the vigorous plant you get when you leave them in place. In the case of corn poppies, I have grown the typical red with a black blotch in the center, and also various riffs on Shirley poppies. But in the past, the Shirley poppies have always been mixed colors. Last year a gardening acquaintance had given me some corn poppy seed, and when it bloomed, it was all the same glowing shade of pink. I wanted to make sure I had that next year!

Pure pink corn poppy Papaver rhoeas

Yum! I want more of this next year!

Several years ago, I had been given some double pink opium poppy seeds from a generous reader. I’m ashamed to say I had almost lost this variety, but had marked and saved the seed from a lone poppy growing at the old house. (When a poppy is double like this, it is sometimes called peony poppy, Papaver paeoniflorum, but according to Wikipedia it is just a form of opium poppy.)
Double pink peony poppy Papaver somniferum

This peony poppy is a more delicate pink color than some other peony poppies I’ve seen.

And then there is Lauren’s Grape, a deep purple opium poppy. I originally got my seeds from Botanical Interests(aff link), and I fell in love with this poppy. Then one year Botanical Interests didn’t have this seed due to a crop failure, and I realized I’d better not count on seed companies to preserve my favorite varieties.
Lauren's Grape poppy Papaver somniferum

After all these years, Lauren’s Grape opium poppy still moves me with its beauty.

Fortunately, many of them self-sowed, and I wound up sending some of my seed to Botanical Interests.

Collecting Poppy Seed

Collecting poppy seed is easy. Get a paper bag. (Plastic bags hold moisture in.) Get a pair of scissors or hand pruners. Find the seed heads which have opened, like this:

Opium poppy seed head Papaver somniferum seedhead

This opium poppy seed head has its windows wide open and is ready to scatter its seed.

When their little “windows” are open, that shows that the seed is ripened. Hold the stem upright as you snip it, and don’t tip it sideways until it’s over your open bag, otherwise the seeds will spill on the ground. I usually just throw the seed head into the bag and remove it later, in the interests of saving time.
There were a couple of problems with this method:

  1. Almost all the plants had stopped blooming, so I didn’t know which was which, and
  2. Most of the seed heads were not yet fully ripened

I solved the first problem by carefully looking over the plants for wilted but still attached blossoms, or a bud that I could pry open. Since the two species of poppy are easy to distinguish (one’s hairy, one’s not; one has U-shaped pods and one has O-shaped pods–click on the first image to see examples), I only had to differentiate between the pink peony poppy and Lauren’s Grape. Even wilted or in cold-damaged bud, those two are easy to tell apart.

Even in its wilted, cold-damaged state, I can tell by the dark color and single set of petals that this is a Lauren's Grape poppy.

Even in its wilted, cold-damaged state, I can tell by the dark color and single set of petals that this is a Lauren’s Grape poppy.

As for the plants that had no flowers remaining, I just put them all in a bag labeled Mixed Poppies. Hopefully next year I will remember to mark them.

The second problem may not be solved. Because winter will be here soon–we had snow flurries the day after I collected seed–I couldn’t wait any longer to collect them. So, ripe or not, I put them all the seed heads in the bag. I am hoping that at least some of them will finish ripening in their bags. I’m not certain they will–but what have I got to lose? I am very certain they won’t finish ripening outdoors!

Eventually I will pour the contents of each bag into a box lid (the kind gifts come in, without any cracks or seams) and pick out the debris, then re-package the seed into a coin envelope. But that can wait until some blowy, snowy day when I want to do something garden-related indoors. For now, it’s on to the next now-or-never fall chore!

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Every spring offers another chance to undo the damage done by winter and finally get the garden right.

~Laurie Lisle in Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life

9 Comments… add one

Deborah B November 15, 2013, 7:30 pm

I did manage to save some seed this year from the Lauren’s Grape poppies that you gave me. It was a struggle because rabbits ate most of the seedlings almost to the ground. I repotted them and just left them in the pots this year along the front stoop. They all came back and bloomed nicely, and then I almost forgot to get the seed. Not sure where I’ll try to plant them next year, in terms of rabbit vulnerability. That may be a problem again.

VW November 14, 2013, 12:59 pm

Those are gorgeous poppies! Especially those soft double pinks . . . yummy. I have lavender/mauve/rose Medallion and just planted some burgundy Heartbeat poppies. I’m excited to see them bloom next year.

Andrea November 12, 2013, 11:09 pm

Great info! In fact I have some poppy seeds in a plastic bag from my seed-saving efforts. I’ll be sure to move them into a paper bag…didn’t think about the moisture. :)

Robart November 12, 2013, 11:47 am

Great tips, Kathy

Donna@Gardens Eye View November 11, 2013, 7:48 pm

Kathy how fascinating that you wait for the windows to be open….I had not grown many annual poppies but I do love them. I might have to reconsider this now and try them.

debra November 11, 2013, 11:26 am

Great tips, Kathy! Let us know how the seeds do next spring!

Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern November 11, 2013, 10:19 am

Wonderful tutorial! I am going to check my poppies and see if I can rescue some seeds. Rabbits ate my poppies earlier in the season but I did manage to catch a bloom here and there. Try, try again! You have a beautiful collection. Delicious eye candy.

Gail November 10, 2013, 4:54 pm

Very helpful and I agree with Frances, that is a lovely opening photo.

Frances November 10, 2013, 4:28 pm

A very well presented *How To*, Kathy, thank you! The opening photo almost looks like a watercolor. I had to go back and check it make sure some of your family artists hadn’t painted it. Good for you finding your prize poppies, just in the nick of time, too. I have found that some of the unripe seedheads, if not all will open eventually.

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