The Gardener's Apprentice

Celandine Poppies

The proverb says, “Be careful what you wish for.”  For years I wished for more poppies—Papaver– in my garden.  The crepe paper flowers are so bright and cheerful, the ferny foliage adds interest even after the flowers have faded and many poppies also boast interesting seed heads.  I have had great success with some members of the Papaveraceae family, like little California poppies or Eschscholzia californica.  In my front border I grow several large Oriental-type poppies—Papaver orientale–and over the years I have planted various annual types.  All succeeded for a time, but never gave me the massive, colorful show that I craved.

Then I acquired a celandine poppy—Stylophorum diphyllum.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember buying the original plant.  This is not to say that I didn’t acquire it somewhere, pop it into the ground in front of one of the blue hydrangeas and forget about it.  That has happened before.  However, I have never found a plant tag near it, which suggests that it might be an example of poppy serendipity.

No matter how it appeared, my first celandine was a revelation.  If you are a little myopic or perhaps a bit fanciful, the deeply dissected foliage of this eastern North American native plant has roughly the same lobed configuration as oak leaves.  Celandine leaves are medium green to gray/green and a little soft or fuzzy.  The pale yellow flower buds are, ovoid, typically poppy-like and hairy as well.  When the four-petaled flowers burst forth, they are bold. golden yellow, each one like a little sun atop its stalk.  The plants only stand about 12 inches tall, but if you have a patch of flowering celandines, you can spot them easily from a distance.

Celandines also have bright yellow sap, which was used as a dye source by Native Americans.  In fact, that yellow sap is one way to distinguish the American native celandine poppy from its cousin, Chinese celandine poppy—Stylophorum lasiocarpum.  The two species are very similar in appearance, but the stems of Chinese celandine are filled with red-orange fluid, rather than yellow.  It’s a good idea not to let any celandine sap drip onto clothes, as it may be hard to remove.

My original celandine settled in several years ago and went about the business of fulfilling its biological imperative, apparently dropping quantities of extremely viable seed.  Now, I can’t even be sure of the number of celandine plants that shine forth in my garden in mid to late spring, but it is probably up to about thirty.  Young celandines have also appeared at least 20 feet from the original, which attests to the fact that birds most likely find the seed appealing.  Deer, however, will avoid celandines, which is good news for all of us who live with daily incursions by Mr. Antlers and his many relatives.

Some sources also allude to the fact that celandines can “spit” their seeds when the hairy seed pods burst open and hurl them outward from the plants.  For fastidious gardeners, this may be a problem, but I find the “volunteers” easy to remove, either for transplanting, gift-giving or composting.

Like many spring bloomers, celandines, also known as “wood poppies” or “yellow poppies”, hang around for awhile after the seed has been dropped, but then fade away until the following spring.  While they are with us, they are somewhat drought tolerant, thriving in partial to nearly full shade, which makes them a great addition to less-than-bright spaces.

The prolific reproductive habits of the celandine poppy must be Nature’s way of compensating for the fact that one of its closest relatives, the gorgeous blue Himalayan poppy, is impossible to grow in many places without benefit of a cool greenhouse.  The yellow poppies are also related to bloodroot or Sanguinaria, which shares the brightly colored sap.  If you have a woodland, wildflower or native plant garden, the two would look lovely together.  They are also a nice complement for blue/purple-flowered bugleweed or Ajuga reptans, which enjoys the same shady conditions and blooms around the same time.

If you crave poppies, like yellow-flowered plants and/or need a little something for a shady spot, celandine poppies are your ticket.  Find them at Niche Gardens, 1111 Dawson Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27516, (919) 967-0078,  Free print catalog on request.