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Papaver orientale (oriental poppy)

Few hardy, herbaceous flowers are more spectacular than the oriental poppy, a perennial that has long been popular in cultivation.

white flower of oriental poppy

Papaver orientale (oriental poppy) (Photo: James Morley)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Papaver orientale L.

Common name: 

oriental poppy

Conservation status: 

Not known to be threatened.

Habitat: 

Mountain meadows and on mountain screes.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental.

Known hazards: 

Contains alkaloids; toxic if eaten hence avoided by grazing animals.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Ranunculanae
Order: 
Ranunculales
Family: 
Papaveraceae
Genus: Papaver

About this species

Papaver orientale is a perennial poppy with large, red or orange flowers and bristly leaves. It has been a popular garden plant since it was introduced to western Europe in 1714. Many cultivars are now available, including those with white (P. orientale ‘Perry’s White’), pink (P. orientale ‘Mrs Perry’), deep crimson (P. orientale ‘Beauty of Livermere’) and purple (P. orientale ‘Patty’s Plum’) flowers. Many cultivated varieties of oriental poppy are hybrids between P. orientale and P. bracteatum.

Synonym: 

Calomecon orientale

Genus: 
Papaver

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Native to north-eastern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and north-western Iran, where it inhabits the sub-alpine and alpine zones.

Plant-collecting in Turkey

Detail of Papaver orientale (Photo: James Morley)

One of the earliest plant-collecting expeditions to the east of Turkey was made by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and Andreas Gundelsheimer, with Claude Aubriet as artist. The team set off from Paris in 1700 and reached Istanbul in early 1701 before sailing along the Black Sea coast to Trebizond (present day Trabzon). From there, they travelled inland, accompanying a caravan of around 600 men and animals for safety, reaching Erzurum on 15 June. During an expedition from there into the mountains, to visit the sources of the Euphrates, they collected seeds of Papaver orientale, which were subsequently grown in Paris, and then sent to England in about 1714.

Description

A long-lived, herbaceous perennial with deep taproots. The leaves are mostly basal, deeply toothed and bristly-hairy. The flowering stems are 30–90 cm tall, without bracts and usually bear a solitary flower. The flowers are red or orange and typically have four petals. The anthers are yellow or pale violet, and there are 8–15 long-ridged stigmas. The fruit is a capsule up to 2 cm long.

A similar species of perennial poppy, Papaver bracteatum, has large, usually six-petalled flowers, with a dark blotch and bracts below the flowers. It comes from north-western Iran and the Caucasus Mountains.

Uses

Papaver orientale is cultivated as an ornamental.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in Kew's seed bank vault at Wakehurst.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 0.2 g
Collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Three
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox
Germination testing: 100 % germination was achieved on a 1% agar medium, at a temperature of 21°C, on a cycle of 12 hours daylight/12 hours darkness

Hand-coloured engraving of Papaver orientale by Sydenham Edwards in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1788).

Cultivation

Papaver orientale is a suitable perennial for planting in long, rough grass and herbaceous borders. After flowering, the stems and leaves can be cut down, and the leaves emerge again in autumn or early spring.

Illustration from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine

Curtis's Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.

Now well over 200 years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis's Botanical Magazine

This species at Kew

Oriental poppy can be seen growing in the Duke’s Garden and adjacent to the Orangery at Kew, and in the West Mansion Border and Sir Henry Price Memorial Garden at Wakehurst.

Pressed and dried, and alcohol-preserved specimens of Papaver orientale are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers, by appointment. The details of some of these can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.

View details and images of specimens

References and credits

Goldblatt, P. (1974). Biosystematic studies in Papaver section Oxytona. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 61(2): 264-296.

Grey-Wilson, C. (2000). Poppies: the Poppy Family in the Wild and in Cultivation. Batsford, London.

The Plant List (2010). Papaver orientale. Available online (accessed 8 April 2011).

Tournefort, J.P. de (1717). Relation d'un Voyage du Levant. Paris.

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions. 

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