Gardening: Fashion victim

There was a conspicuous absence of Oriental poppies at Chelsea this year. Why, says Ursula Buchan, when they are so magnificent?
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I WONDER how many other people noticed the strange dearth of oriental poppies at the Chelsea Flower Show. With the exceptions of Sir Terence Conran's Chef's Roof Garden, and 21, Century Street, laid out by Glebe Cottage Plants (whose proprietor, Carol Klein, has proved a successor to Beth Chatto as Chelsea plants- woman extraordinaire), they were conspicuous by their absence.

You may wonder why this should strike me so forcibly, since there was variety enough there for the most avid eye or sophisticated palate.

It seemed to me strange that there should have been daffodils, delphiniums, even dahlias and chrysanthemums, all of which had been either forced on or held back in order to flower in Chelsea week, but very few varieties of Papaver orientale, which are flowering in gardens at the moment.

Perhaps it is because gardeners are rather ambivalent about these plants; to see the point of them you need to have an exuberant spirit and a bit of space. But what else in late spring has such big, blowsy, almost tarty flowers, with their come-hither petals like wrinkled and coloured tissue paper?

These flowers do not bloom for more than a few weeks but, by golly, they make an impact when they are out. You cannot miss those 6-in diameter, single-cup flowers, once they have broken free of their hairy, egg-shaped buds.

These flowers usually have black blotches in the centre and a fat boss of black anthers; if the stems are not staked in the spring they curl upwards like the branches of a candelabra. The leaves are large, deeply cut and intensely hairy, and help to make a dense, dome-shaped clump which should ideally be staked, for the leaf stalks fall flat on their backs after heavy rain.

I am sure that not everyone will agree, but to me it is a great virtue of these leaves that they die down soon after flowering; this means that they will tolerate being mown over in midsummer, and are therefore suitable for growing in a flowering "meadow". In a border, of course, that may be a mixed blessing, for a gap opens up in July, but by then other large perennials will be pressing for space anyway. This plant is not for the tidy-minded gardener, certainly, but will reward the adventurous one. The best-coloured poppy is one that Glebe Cottage Plants displayed at Chelsea, called Papaver orientale `Patty's Plum', which has deep and bloomy purple-red flowers; it looked superb combined with purple-leaved heucheras, the pink cow parsley Chaerophyllum hirsutum `Roseum', glaucous-leaved hostas, and deep red astrantias.

Although `Patty's Plum' is the pick of the crop, I also rate highly `Cedric Morris' (which its raiser described as "knicker pink"), `Mrs Perry' (pale pink), `Black and White' and `Beauty of Livermere' (bright red, and, at 1.2 metres tall, definitely in need of staking). There are more than 60 cultivated varieties to choose from, but they are not all worth having, and it is best to see them in flower before parting with money, for they will be with you for life.

Oriental poppies are one of those perennials that you can propagate by root cuttings. If you can get them to replicate themselves by sticking a piece of root in a pot or seed tray during the winter, it is obvious that they can do the job perfectly well on their own. It is almost impossible to eradicate one of these plants once you have it in the borders, and they are capable of creeping about, as well. My bete noire is the orange `Marcus Perry' (or it may be `Allegro'; they are very similar), which has flowers as glowing and obvious as a Belisha beacon. You may know the one I mean, for it seems a more or less obligatory denizen of old-established gardens. It was in the garden when we came and, try as I may, I cannot get rid of it.

I have even contemplated spot-weedkilling this orange poppy with a systemic herbicide, which will kill the roots as well. But as it is my almost unbroken intention never to use weedkillers in the border, I have just resolved to make a virtue out of a necessity, and hedge it round with aggressively purple-flowered plants such as the allium `Purple Sensation', or even purple-foliage shrubs such as Cotinus `Grace' and Berberis thunbergii `Atropurpurea', as well as the simultaneously flowering geranium `Johnson's Blue'. That should take just enough of the sting out of the orange to create a sumptuous effect - the sort of effect that would look just terrific at Chelsea.